It’s a conflict as old as time itself: dog versus squirrel. Hundreds of generations of selective breeding and adaptive evolution have somehow failed to disabuse dogs of the idea that they might be able to catch a squirrel, even though there are probably more photos of Bigfoot drinking a mint julep than there are of a dog with a squirrel in its mouth.
That’s why most dog owners, no matter how sensitive they are to the welfare of all God’s creatures, will always let their pooch chase a squirrel. They know that squirrel is as safe as could be. The squirrel knows it too, that’s why they’ll sit on a branch just three feet out of the dog’s reach, grumbling and quacking at the dog’s frantic efforts to destroy them with nothing but relentless barking.
As a student of human nature and a frequent watcher of Animal Planet, I pride myself on my ability to discern the wants and needs of many animals simply by the sounds they make. I’m not quite to the level of literal translation into English, but like a San Diego surf rat who ate thee magic brownies for breakfast and accidentally rode the offshore swells clear down to Mexico, I can figure out the basic meaning of an unknown tongue.
For instance, right now my Vietnamese tunneling hound, Houdini, has a sassy juvenile squirrel treed in the small pear tree at the back of our yard. Houdini had been at the other end of the yard when he spotted the squirrel, who was creeping across the open grass in no particular hurry. With an ear-splitting bark, Houdini dropped what he was doing (eating a hole into the lawn) and sprinted across the yard, sucking in huge gulps of air. Now, when I say “sprinting” I’m being kind of generous. He’s built like a 35-lb. Polish sausage with chicken drumsticks for legs, so his mighty efforts don’t produce what you’d call blinding speed. The local squirrels have come to learn this, and when this one ran away he kind of insulted Houdini by stopping once or twice to sit down and have a scratch.
Houdini was crazy blind with squirrel blood lust, and nearly brained himself on the trunk of the pear tree when the squirrel leaped up onto it just ahead of the dog’s snapping jaws. The young rodent seemed unconcerned with me as I watched the action from the porch ten yards away. Clinging to a slender branch, seemingly calm, he sneered down at Houdini. “Shut your hole, fat boy. You’ll never get me. I’ll stay up here all night if I have to.”
Upon hearing the squirrel’s chirring insults, Houdini ratcheted up his barking even louder. “No you can’t! Squirrel! I hate you! I hate your guts! Come down here so I can kill you dead!” He stood on his hind legs and placed his front paws on the tree trunk, stretching to his full height, which brought him maybe six inches closer to the squirrel. “You’re so dead! I hate you! You suck!”
The squirrel chattered derisively: “Jesus Christ, you’re like a Polish sausage with drumstick legs, boy! How do you keep that fat belly from scraping the ground when you walk?” He casually climbed up to the next branch and made himself comfortable. “I mean, I’m surprised you have any hair left on your undercarriage at all.”
Houdini plopped back to all fours and went around to the other side of the tree. “You’re stupid! I’ll bet you wouldn’t say that if I was a cat.”
“Cats are pussies,” said the squirrel, twitching his nose. “But at least they’re smart enough not to chase us. You ever see a squirrel and a cat going at it?”
“What, you mean, like, fighting?”
“No, Benji, I mean making sweet furry love. Of COURSE I mean fighting. A squirrel will mess up a cat, numb-nuts. Mess ‘im up good. And the cats know it.”
Houdini whined like somebody had shut his pink thing in a car door. “I don’t HAVE any nuts!”
The squirrel chittered. “Figures. Hey, I have a shit ton of nuts buried all around your yard. Wanna borrow a couple?” He turned away to climb higher up the tree. “Check these puppies out.” He turned his hindquarters toward Houdini and swung a pair of golf ball-sized testicles.
Houdini barked. “That’s not even funny! Now come down here. Now, I say!”
The squirrel used a hind paw to scratch furiously behind one ear. He started making a sticky, chirping noise in the back of his throat. He fixed his hard black eyes on the horizon and became pensive. “Look, I don’t even know you, man. I’ve only been around since April. But I have to wonder, is it really worth the effort? I mean, look at me. I was born and raised right in these trees. And then look at you. No offense, dude, but you’re a food giant. Gravity’s been unkind to you. I bet it’s hard for you to even jump up on your owner’s bed at night.”
Houdini hung his head, embarrassed. “I think I have a thyroid disorder.”
“Thyroid shmyroid, Jasper. You have a thinking disorder. Thinking you could ever catch a squirrel. It’s like a manatee trying to catch a monkey. It’s an annoying exercise in futility, and all that barking and whining probably isn’t earning you any extra treats from your people, either.”
Houdini sat down and continued to stare at the squirrel. Panting, he cocked his head to one side. “So, what are you saying?”
The squirrel quickly ran out to the end of a limb and leaped to the branch of an adjacent maple. Houdini bounded into action, barking and running underneath the fleeing squirrel. Four trees and one fence later, the squirrel had reached the edge of a long line of tall, impenetrable junipers. His home base. The whole slippery escape had taken perhaps five seconds. Houdini barked and hopped under the squirrel, his blood boiling.
“What I’m saying is,” chattered the squirrel, before turning to disappear into the junipers, “can’t we all just get along?”