DEAR JOAN: I’m having a problem with an animal that I hope you can help me with.
I live in a neighborhood that has lots of trees, and that means we also have lots of squirrels. I enjoy watching them racing across the branches and going up and down the trees. Sometimes I put out a bowl of walnuts for them in my backyard.
I don’t have a problem with most of them, but there is one that is getting very aggressive when I go out in the backyard. The other squirrels usually run away or at least move further away, but this one just stands there. Lately, he’s started approaching me with a strange look in his eyes.
At first, I spoke softly, saying hello and asking him what he was up to. When he started coming toward me, I stood still and let him approach, but when he got really close, I got scared, screamed and went back inside.
Now, every time I go out back, the squirrel — I’ve named him Rambo — runs toward me. I retreat every time, but I’m wondering if I shouldn’t. What would happen if I didn’t run away? Should I yell at him to make him stop? My friends say it’s no big deal, but it’s starting to preoccupy my thoughts. What has the squirrel got against me?
Olivia G., Berkeley
DEAR OLIVIA: I don’t think you need to worry too much unless Rambo starts wearing bandoliers across his chest and toting an assault rifle. Still, even without the artillery, there’s some reason to be concerned.
What Rambo is doing isn’t anything personal. Although some animals can hold grudges — I’m looking at you, crows — squirrels aren’t known for plotting revenge or settling old scores.
It’s more likely that someone has been hand-feeding Rambo, and now whenever he sees a human, he expects to be fed. A squirrel’s natural inclination, when faced with the unknown, is to hightail it out of there. It appears Rambo has lost some of his natural fear of humans and is willing to approach you in anticipation of getting a snack.
This is one of many reasons why it’s not a good idea to hand-feed wildlife. Although some might argue putting out the bowl of walnuts is the same thing, it’s not. The squirrels are more likely to associate the bowl, not the human, with the giving of food, especially if you aren’t sticking around, waiting for a personal thank you.
A hand-fed squirrel comes to believe that every human it encounters is going to fork over some treats. The risk comes when the squirrel gets frustrated by the human not handing over the goods. Squirrels have been known to launch themselves at the human, looking for food, and the human quite naturally reacts and the next thing you know, Rambo has drawn first blood.
The squirrel means you no harm, but you could be injured if this escalates. You don’t have to cede your backyard to Rambo, but this genie will be difficult to put back in the bottle.
If Rambo charges at you, stay calm. Screaming and waving your arms around will only cause more confusion.