Thanksgiving. Historically, it’s been a rather alarming holiday for my family. Although my mom still lives off-Island in the home where I grew up, she also has a place on the Vineyard, which my husband and I caretake, making sure all is ready when Grandma and Grandpa come visit for holidays. One November I went to check the house before their Thanksgiving arrival. There hadn’t been tenants since summer. I opened the door and was welcomed by an army of flies. Thousands of flies, maybe millions. Big ones. Covering the windows and skylights.
After several hours of debugging (picture Michelle teetering on a chair trying to swat them or shoo them outside), I located the source. A squirrel. He must have come down the chimney and gotten stuck in the house. The poor thing actually tried to eat the couch, gnawing the slipcovers. So sad. Eventually he died, curled up under the cushions, where his body became an insect breeding ground. I respectfully removed his mummified remains and called an exterminator for the flies.
A few years later, everything in the house looked shipshape. After a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, Grandpa built a fire in the fireplace, the first of the season. As we sat around the living room, stuffed with stuffing and pumpkin pie, my 5-year-old daughter exclaimed, “Mommy, there’s a squirrel in the fire.” Assuming this was a product of her vivid imagination, I turned to look, saying “I doubt there’s a squirrel in the …” Oh, dear. Yes, there was. A big, fat squirrel, unconscious on the hearth. She must have been nesting in the chimney, then passed out from smoke inhalation when we lit the fire. Of course, being a veterinarian, my children expected me to do something. I examined the rodent, who luckily had not landed directly in the flaming pile of wood. Some scorched fur, but no serious burns. Unconscious but breathing. No obvious broken bones. Scooping her up, I rushed her back to my clinic for treatment.
The best way to deal with squirrels (and raccoons) inhabiting your chimney is to prevent them from moving in in the first place. To Rocky the squirrel, your chimney looks like a nice big hollow tree, perfect for holing up during the cold weather. If no one is living in the chimney now, have a professional install an animal-proof chimney cap. Relatively inexpensive, these let smoke out without letting wildlife in. Do it now. If there is enough food available, adult Eastern grey squirrels, the type we have on the Vineyard, may have two litters a year. Evicting an entire family is way more complicated than removing a lone squatter, so it’s better to make sure your chimney is secure before there are babies to deal with.
If the interior of your chimney is rough, like brick or stone, Rocky can climb in and out at will. Simply wait until he has gone foraging for the day and have the chimney capped while he is outside. But if the chimney interior is slick, such as when there is a metal liner, Rocky may slide down, then be unable to get back up the smooth surface. If the damper is open, he ends up trapped in your house, eating the slipcovers. If the damper is closed, your visitor is stuck sitting on top of it, with no way out. Now what?
One option is to pass a thick rope with a weight on the end down the chimney so Rocky can climb out. If you’ve ever watched squirrels’ antics raiding bird feeders, you know they are agile acrobats as long as they have something to cling to. Give Rocky several hours to leave. You can encourage him to move out by playing loud music and shining bright lights from down below. Do not try to “smoke” him out. This is more likely to injure or kill him than motivate him to go. Since dropping a rope down the chimney involves a human being climbing up on the roof, I suggest not doing this yourself. Hire someone who does this kind of thing professionally. If you do opt to go up on your own, be aware that Rocky may come flying out of the chimney suddenly and startle you. Don’t fall off the roof.
If Rocky is sitting on the damper, and won’t (or can’t) climb up and out via the roof, you have to open the damper and release him through the house. First, confine your pets. Next, open doors and/or windows to create an obvious escape route from hearth to the great outdoors. Close off the rest of the house. Block off all potential hiding places. Then, open the damper. When Rocky drops out, shoo him toward the exit. If you are experienced working with wildlife, it is sometimes possible to nab a wayward squirrel by dropping a towel or blanket over him and scooping him up. But squirrels are … well … squirrelly. They can be hard to catch, and they bite. Better to stay hands-off. Even if he doesn’t exit immediately, don’t panic. Leave doors and windows open, then go away. He will usually find his way out quickly. If all this sounds daunting, or if a nest with baby squirrels is involved, hire a professional. Then critter-proof, pronto!
I hadn’t learned my lesson with the fly invasion, and hadn’t had a chimney cap installed, hence our second close encounter with the squirrel on the hearth. My children named her Smokey Fally Lucky, because first she got Smoked, then she had a big Fall, and then she was Lucky and survived. A week later, during which I finally had the chimney capped, our uninvited dinner guest was fully recovered. I released her in the woods behind the house. She ran happily up a tree, where I imagine she made her new home. My family still points out squirrels cavorting around Grandma’s house each Thanksgiving, wondering if that one there could be Smokey Fally Lucky.