Friday, June 15, 2007
Yosemite's scrofulous cadgers
That's him, next to the squirt gun. We're talking about the California ground squirrel, Yosemite's scrofulous cadger.
His life seems to be an obsession with junk food. If his cute squirrelly presence doesn't seduce you into tossing him a handout, he has no qualms about taking it from your plate, car, backpack or sleeping bag. When he needs a fix of corn chips and bean dip, he'll go to any length to get it. Like junkies anywhere his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. If you think all ground squirrels look slightly raunchy, just hike into the high country and check out their svelte cousins there. A diet of seeds, gooseberries, bark and the occasional bug makes a world of difference.
Before continuing, however, let me commend the National Park Service. Despite modest increases in federal funding in past years, the park service has carried out its mission exceedingly well. And it has done an excellent job of notifying us of the consequences of feeding wildlife. It has appealed to our common sense ("feeding wildlife can be dangerous"), to our sympathy ("feeding wildlife is bad for their heath"), and to our fear ("feeding wildlife can expose you to disease"). But the task is overwhelming, because most campers can't help themselves. They seem to leave a trail of food wherever they go. So, the park service invests its greatest effort in protecting visitors from bears, and protecting bears from visitors.
If you don't believe it, just leave your salt shaker, an empty pop bottle, or a bag of chips on your camp table. Mr. Park-Ranger-Man makes his rounds after you've turned in, and it doesn't matter what you are doing in there. He'll provide the lighting and wait patiently for you to put the food in the bear-proof locker or trash can.
But rodents are a different matter. The park service simply warns you in advance not to feed them, and then lets the rodents put you to the test.
We had our test last year. Our group came prepared to fend off the cadging rodents. We already knew that it was impossible NOT to feed them. There was always the occasional fallen chip, or the misplaced dish of snacks to give them hope.
So a few anonymous members of the group decided that a squirt gun or two would not only discourage the rodents, but also provide them with a much needed bath. Mind you, this is frowned upon by park management, and I certainly don't endorse or recommend it, but a drama of man and beast inevitably plays itself out in the campground. (And let me add that I use the term "man" advisedly, because few women in campgrounds do as many stupid things as men.)
Well, no sooner than the snacks and libations started to appear so did the squirrels, and with a little practice the marksmen were spot-on target. It was great sport, and a highly entertaining diversion. But the squirrels were really pumped from eating the junk food. Even as the stream of water drew closer, they kept eating at high speed, and when the water hit its mark, they merely scampered beyond the circle of people, and took a hurried dust bath.
Then the muddy rodents made a diversionary circuit behind the tents, and appeared unexpectedly in our midst ready for the next round.
Well, when happy hour came to a close, a few human casualties were almost dry, and the squirrels seemed to have gone to bed. The ladies laid out a splendid assortment of salads, pasta, baked beans, assorted vegies, and grilled meat. A couple more bottles of two-buck Chuck appeared, and we filled our plates. Then we settled down to enjoy the repast. By now, as they say, we weren't feeling any pain. The hikers' aches were gone, the conversation was flowing, and we dined in a spirit of conviviality.
Then one of the ladies got up to refill the wine glasses, and we heard the anguished cry. A scrofulous cadger was on the table, sitting in the casserole, enjoying the pasta. There was a great hue and cry, the men took up their arms, and the food was sprayed with water.
The squirrel seemed to know we'd lost our edge. A few minutes later he was discovered once again in the casserole dish. He had obviously been there for a while and looked rather bloated, but he made his exit unscathed.