Squirrel spotted at the Fairyland watering hole. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)
Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin opens like this:
“This is a tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin. He had a brother called Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.”
Here in Oakland, CA, in the wood, at the edge of Lake Merritt, is a place where stories like Potter’s come to life. Children’s Fairyland is a historic amusement park inside the nation’s first wildlife refuge, surrounded by bustling downtown Oakland. You can walk through the Alice in Wonderland maze, ride the mini choo-choo train, and visit that shoe where the old woman lived.
But recently, the park in experiencing an unwelcome connection to Potter’s tale–with the arrival of aggressive, boundary-less guests: the fox squirrel.
The park’s toddler demographic loves the squirrels. But for Fairyland employee, Crystal Griffen, these are not welcome visitors.
“At Children’s Fairyland we have a lot of squirrels that come out because of the food that we feed them. I’ve never ever seen as many squirrels anywhere else [in Oakland] but here at Children’s Fairyland,” Griffen says.
According to one mother in the park, Malinda Derouen, they’ll go after adult targets too.
“I put my food away and the next thing I knew I looked away and this squirrel jumped on my pant leg and started crawling up me. I freaked out and the people around me were like, ‘Whoa.’ All these other parents couldn’t believe it,” Derouen remembers.
It’s more than just a case of spooked Moms and lost cookies. Children’s Fairyland Executive Director, CJ Hirschfeld, has assessed the damage, park-wide.
“They are destroying our irrigation lines on a weekly basis, so that my team needs to come through and repair them. Some people may not realize– it sounds kind of awful– they eat the faces off of some Marry Marry Quite Contrary sets,” Hirshfield explains.
The park’s art and restoration department then has to regularly repair the sets. Over the last couple years, Hirschfield estimates that the squirrel scourge has gotten pricey.
“It’s definitely in the thousands, probably over time in the tens of thousands of dollars.” Hirschfield adds, “You know, this is a controversial issue. We love animals but we really feel we need to get a handle on this problem.”
So she’s turned to the pros to help figure out a humane way to address the overpopulation. David James is an ecologist with the Alameda County Vector Control, with two decades of experience under his belt.
“What you’d have to do is put traps out when nobody is around and then once you’ve trapped them– there’s actually a little straight jacket. It’s like a little conical sleeve, they run into it and you can trap them in there,” James says.
Some would be exterminated, and some would be trapped and injected with a squirrel serum that stops them from reproducing. The other part of the plan is on the humans; locking down food sources, and training all park goers that even though it’s really fun: you can’t feed the squirrels.
James continues, “Then over a couple of years, you will see a reduction, and hopefully that’s an acceptable level. Obviously we don’t want to get rid of all the squirrels, because they are cute and have little fluffy tails.”
They are cute. The fox squirrels, with their reddish fur and big cheeks, are kinda nice to see around.
In Beatrix Potter’s story, squirrel Nutkin is trapped by an old owl. For the squirrels of Fairyland, it could be straight-jacket traps by the Vector Control.
Sometimes reality is stranger than fairy tales.