Where the Wild Things Are

The Dark Underbelly of a Beautiful Home Brand

Honey? We've got squirrels.

May  2, 2019
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

We spend a lot of time at Food52 offering up ways to improve your home life, with inspiration for cooking, handsome home goods, and tips to keep it a beautiful, organized, welcoming sanctuary. We don’t spend a lot of time on the realities of home ownership. Well, buckle up—that’s about to change. In Where the Wild Things Are, Amanda Hesser introduces us to some of the critters with whom her family has not-so-willfully cohabited over the years, hoping to inspire you to share your own stories. Bring on the funny disasters. The rants. And the helpful solutions, too! This is the first in Amanda’s six-part series.


I’m deeply in love with our apartment. My husband, Tad, likes to call me an unrelenting devotee of home improvement, and I’m a shameless homebody. But our home hasn’t made it easy on us.

We moved into our place 17 years ago. It’s the second floor of a 19th-century brownstone on a wide, leafy block of Brooklyn Heights, steps from the Promenade that overlooks the East River and Manhattan. We’re perched at treehouse level above the street. While we do hear passing cars from our living room, the dominant sounds are of birds singing and the low moan of boat horns in the harbor. Often, when living in New York City, you’re so closed in by buildings that it’s easy to forget it’s a collection of islands surrounding an industrious body of water. I liked having this audible reminder.

Our building was purchased in the 1960s by three families who converted it into a co-op. When we moved in in 2002, one of those families still resided on the top floor. During our co-op interview, the board (aka, all the residents) told us that no family stayed on the second floor for long, because they often outgrew it. They expected us to last five years, tops.

As Tad and I had both come from small one bedrooms on the Upper West Side, our new apartment seemed enormous. We had a living room. And a den! And we each had our own small study (two of the four rooms our broker had generously referred to as “bedrooms").

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“When I called my husband from the refuge of our upstairs bedroom behind a locked door, he told me not to worry, he always closed the glass doors on the fireplace. Long story short, squirrels can open closed fireplace doors. This one did and make a beeline for our dining room where the neighbor who came to my rescue found it sitting on top of a chair next to our bay window, banging its head on the glass. It also managed to chew the window frame in short order. The neighbor got it to run out an open sliding glass door, an event that enabled me to come out of hiding. Apparently the bugger feel down the chimney, a hapless Santa substitute. Good thing there was no fire going! It’s a well known neighborhood fact that I don’t like squirrels.”
— Amy
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The previous owners had gut renovated the apartment five years earlier, which meant we were inheriting relatively unused appliances and a clean slate, electrically speaking. While we had a daunting mortgage, it was an investment in our future together, which was all we were thinking about with our wedding just three months away.

Our new apartment agreed with us for the first few years. We put in a wall with bookcases and a pocket door and a boatload of additional bookshelves (the previous owners had taken all the shelves out, to Tad’s horror). We painted—lots of White Dove—and did our best to tame the previous owners’ obsession with cherry wood.

We had great neighbors. The couple upstairs, the Howards, who were in their eighties, were cultural omnivores, always eager to talk about something they’d read in The New Yorker or seen at a gallery. Downstairs were a federal judge and a lawyer, who had been there for more than a decade. (Small world fun fact: Sam Sifton, the Food Editor at The New York Times, grew up on the parlor floor.)

The only disagreement among the current tenants was over a maple tree whose limbs intruded on the Howards’ deck (and ours). The Howards wanted to prune the branches. The judge, a gentle man and environmentalist, was opposed. Whenever the subject came up, he would quote Joyce Kilmer’s poem about never having seen a thing as lovely as a tree. And when it came time for the annual pruning, he would stand outside in his pajamas to make sure only the minimum was trimmed. In New York, where co-op members are constantly suing each other over construction noise or poodle poop, this was pretty benign.

But after a handful of years, we began to notice rustling in our bedroom ceiling, usually early in the morning. As we lay there, awakened, it sounded all too much like squirrels—and indeed it was. At first, we assumed the squirrels were inhabiting the space between the Howards’ deck and the roof, which was right above our bedroom. Eventually, we admitted to ourselves that, no, they were in the ceiling itself. There was just a thin layer of wallboard between them and us.

One of the culprits, sunbathing. Photo by Amanda Hesser

The Howards were getting old and didn’t seem eager to root around under their deck. Tad went up there to investigate a couple of times, but there were no suspects in sight.

Time and familiarity have a way of blunting your perceptions of your home. Even if you’re a fusspot, you start overlooking that broken tile. You think nothing of the awkward way you have to pop a door closed so it locks. You no longer notice the moldy smell in the bathroom. Or bother about the plume of fire that bursts from your oven when you turn on your broiler—although you do keep your kids back when you light it.

The squirrels became white noise. What most normal people would see as an alarming problem that had to be addressed immediately, we saw as comforting normalcy. The squirrels were waking up just as we were. We were stretching. They were scratching. Squirrels are cute. No big deal, right?

One Sunday evening—because all plumber- or electrician-worthy events and rapidly-spreading rashes and fevers occur on weekends—I was sitting in the armchair in our kitchen, working.

I heard a thunk near my study, followed by frantic scratching. The pocket door to my study was wobbling in its track. As I got closer to inspect, it was clear there was something in the pocket door wall. When I aimed a flashlight between the door and its frame, I came eye to eye with one of the house squirrels for the first time. It was stuck in the space between the door and the wall. We glared at each other.

A few panicked calls taught me that squirrels are considered wildlife, so you need a licensed wildlife expert to deal with them. The squirrel was struggling; it had to get out. The most helpful expert I could find said he’d be happy to come get the squirrel. What he’d do is cut a hole in the wall (which was covered in irreplaceable fabric wallpaper) and grab the squirrel. This didn’t sound pleasant for either the squirrel or us. Also, this smash-and-grab would cost $750. And the additional wall repair would be up to us.

Expensive options inspire creative thinking. It occurred to me that all the squirrel needed to get back to its “safe space” above our bedroom was for me to move the door and give the squirrel more room to climb. Very slowly, I eased the door from its pocket. I can’t say the squirrel loved this bit, but it worked. As soon as the squirrel had more room to move, it shimmied back up in the ceiling recess.

It was clearly time for intervention. We called in wildlife experts and soon had squirrel traps strategically mounted on the roof, a low-tech solution with a high price tag. We quickly caught three squirrels, who got released into the wild, far from the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

The problem is that squirrels usually live in families of four. The fourth squirrel was a savvy beast who evaded the trap for weeks. Because you rent the traps by week, each week meant a new bill. Tad became restless. We convinced ourselves that the last remaining squirrel would grow lonely and vacate in search of new friends, like the last retiree heading off to Florida.

The alternative would be to remove the Howards’ deck to gain access to the roof to fully address the invasion and make repairs. But the Howards were battling illnesses. We didn’t want to broach the topic of ripping up their roofdeck. So we let it go.

The surviving squirrel immediately shacked up with a mate and soon, we had another family of four above our bedroom.


Check back next week for part two of Amanda’s series.

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Amanda Hesser

Written by: Amanda Hesser

Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.

43 Comments

suzybel63 May 19, 2019
One apartment I lived in had a drop ceiling. I came face to face with a beady little squirrel eye staring at me through a crack where he had moved one of the ceiling tiles in the bedroom after I heard him scratching and rustling. I spent the night on a kitchen chair. The landlord patched up his entry point the next day, when he was out searching for food .and he didn’t come back.
 
Goss May 15, 2019
Just moved out of a super old condo complex that has a huge mouse issue. Now living in suburbia, in a band spanking new condo.

And yet. Bait boxes for installed last weekend. Seems like the rodent issue everywhere *cries*

Growing up in the Middle East, there were at most, bus. We didn't have any rodents or actual scavengers so this is a nightmare "welcome to North America" situation that keeps on giving - squirrels are both scarier due to size but also so much less gross than mice *shudder*
 
Amy May 9, 2019
I was working at my home office desk in our family room when I heard a thump and some rustling in the direction of the fireplace. I ran fast without looking to see what had caused the ruckus. When I called my husband from the refuge of our upstairs bedroom behind a locked door, he told me not to worry, he always closed the glass doors on the fireplace. Long story short, squirrels can open closed fireplace doors. This one did and make a beeline for our dining room where the neighbor who came to my rescue found it sitting on top of a chair next to our bay window, banging its head on the glass. It also managed to chew the window frame in short order. The neighbor got it to run out an open sliding glass door, an event that enabled me to come out of hiding. Apparently the bugger feel down the chimney, a hapless Santa substitute. Good thing there was no fire going! It’s a well known neighborhood fact that I don’t like squirrels.
 
Author Comment
Amanda H. May 10, 2019
What a great neighbor!
 
mudd May 9, 2019
Funny re Sam Sifton growing up in the apartment below yours! One time I was scrolling the nytimes real estate section. Article on Living in the north Bronx. Slide show had the house I grew up in!
 
Panfusine May 9, 2019
Reminds me of a little guest who took up residence under my gas stove.. Been freaking out about the scratching noises that emanated from the kitchen, and yet not a single tell tale sign of food having been vandalized (with kids around, there was plenty of bags of accessible snacks lying around), It got bolder as the days went by and Id even see a tiny snout peeking out from a crack under the cabinets As time went by, he learned to sneak past the copious amounts of steel wool I'd stuffed all over and would even scamper out. leaving me to dance and scream in a primeval stone age like ritual of utter helplessness. Long story short, turns out it was a little mole that had found its way into the house (I suspect it had somehow burrowed into one of the flower pots I brought in for the winter). Pest control came in, sealed off every orifice he could sneak into and he was never heard of again. Aah, he was such a polite uninvited guest (I even gave him a name - Mr. Palekar because he was A MOLE - (unless you were of Indian origin, and had watched Hindi movies from the 70's , you wouldn't get the joke,)
 
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Amanda H. May 10, 2019
Wish our visitors had been as polite!
 
potstirrer May 9, 2019
I lived in Brooklyn Heights in the early to mid aughts and was a fangirl at the time of your Mr. Latte pieces in the Magazine, and then of course the book. I remember first making Aunt Nora's Mock Lobster in my apartment on the corner of Clark and Monroe while I was pregnant with my son who must have developed a taste for cold meatloaf sandwiches in the womb. Such fond memories of walking him the half block to his wonderful pediatrician and across-the-street child care on Monroe, then hopping the easy subway commute. That building was stately and charming, and we had an updated (if not renovated) apartment with a massive stone fireplace and 15 foot ceilings. However, half the building was still partially under rent control and there were residents who had lived there for 30 or more years - the landlord was invisible and didn't answer calls when the heat would suddenly sputter out in mid January, let alone attend to the common spaces in the building or explain the scaffolding that never saw any construction activity (my husband would forebodingly joke to visitors that it was "holding the building up"). I am still a huge fan of your writing and devoted Food52 member since 2009. I will follow this story compulsively, even as I cringe at the memories it evokes of that apartment and possible ensuing nightmares.

First: there was one such long-term tenant who would spend his days perched on the fire hydrant in front of the building with his small dog, chatting with neighbors and passerby, many of whom he had known for decades. We shared the second floor of the building, and though I chatted with him each morning about the upcoming birth of my son, sports, the weather - I never saw the inside of his apartment. It occurred to me one week in August that several days had gone by without a morning chat. And then, signs began to appear taped to the lobby mailboxes: "Neighbors: take out your trash! It Stinks!" It did stink, but it was New York in August so I brushed it off as neighbors being ornery. We were due to leave for a long weekend at the beach, and I was due in weeks - so while I hoped the nuisance offender WOULD take out their trash, I didn't give it much thought but hoped all would be resolved upon our return. It was not. It was a hot August - the year of the blackout that made friends of most neighbors. We returned from the beach to find the stench absolutely unbearable. We became concerned about the neighbor down the hall, who had no air conditioning in the heat and had not been seen in over a week. Knocking - POUNDING on his door, and no returned calls from the absentee landlord, left us with no ideas but to call 911. The police came first, but would not enter the apartment without a witness. They brought firemen from around the corner on Middagh Street. Still, they insisted my husband enter the apartment with them as a witness. They hacked the door apart with their axes, and found his rotting corpse covered with cockroaches, partially eaten by the small dog. The apartment was untouched by any kind of improvement for the thirty years he lived there - it was dirty and infested, unvarnished, sagging, worn and dilapidated. The shock of the discovery was matched by the realization that this man was known and unknown, our neighbor, whom we didn't know well enough to contact his family - no one did, it turned out. That half of our building remained untouched by a landlord who capitalized on the burgeoning Brooklyn boom by renting to young new tenants when he could push out or out-last the old rent stabilized tenants had never registered until that moment. It was so stark and so heartbreakingly sad.

Second: Several weeks later while I was in Chicago for work, my husband called to say the side of the building had ACTUALLY toppled to the ground in a haze of bricks and dust. Luckily it happened in the middle of the day and there were no injuries - just massive property destruction and the immediate condemned designation of the building meaning we could not ever return. My husband was given five supervised minutes to retrieve items from the apartment and managed to come out with diapers and formula. Left behind were all of our clothes, family silver, passports and other important documents - pretty much everything except what could be purchased at the Duane Reade around the corner.

I had put that experience as a young mother far into my distant memory, but your squirrels in the attic piece, along with the memory of reading your work in those days and some of the hilarious and horrifying comments here made it all seem like it had just happened. It also makes me wonder if Brooklyn is better or worse for the disappearance of the squirrels, roaches, and long time hydrant sitters...
 
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Amanda H. May 10, 2019
Wow, that is such a troubling story, and I'm so sorry for all your losses! I think I know the building you're talking about, and am pretty sure it's still untouched since the collapse.
 
Laurie May 8, 2019
We have lived in St. Pete, FL in old houses for over 20 years. Think of the house that one of the 3 little pigs would have made with sticks - high on charm, but low on practicality. There is a lengthy cast of of not-cute-Disney animals that have found their way inside - nature is BOLD here. In no specific order - snails, frogs, snakes (TWICE!), birds covered in soot that looked like bats (TWICE!), squirrels, and rats. The rats have been the worst - ugh! When even the exterminator sighs and says he can't help much, you know you are at war with nature. They have chewed holes in the pipes, duct work, and the washer and dishwasher. While the dollar figure could be calculated, the frustration and mental fatigue were incomprehensible. We even started to wonder if we could live WITH them, until our daughter pointed out no one should be afraid to go into their kitchen because of the rats.
Sigh...
 
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Amanda H. May 10, 2019
Rats *are* the worst -- stay tuned for a future post.
 
Emma L. May 8, 2019
So loved reading this, Amanda. During our recent home inspection, Justin and I were told that we needed to patch up a spot in the attic with chickenwire to prevent squirrels from getting stuck there...this is good a reminder to bump that to the top of our to-do list. Can't wait for the next piece!
 
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Amanda H. May 10, 2019
Thanks, Emma!
 
dymnyno May 3, 2019
At the Winery House we had a single male (they live alone) Little Brown Bat that came every spring and left in late summer. We learned to appreciate that he ate mightily of all the mosquitos in our bedroom. In the morning there were mosquito wings on our bed but we were untouched. He lived in the hall ceiling and left a very small deposit on the floor below. We left the sliding bedroom door open a crack every night so he could leave and reenter after a night mostly spent in the vineyard. He never brought home any friends.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Sounds like the perfect Airbnb guest! :)
 
Noreen F. May 3, 2019
One year on my birthday I was feeling sad because by late afternoon, not one person had called to wish me a happy birthday. (I'm going to date myself by explaining that this was before everyone had a cellphone.) I finally picked up the phone to call my mother and realized that there was no dial tone. I went over to the neighbor's to call the phone company to come check it out and then left to go over to Mom's. I came home to a note and a little plastic bag stuck on my door. The phone company repairman had bagged up the wire, which, he explained, had been gnawed through by a squirrel.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Squirrels are trouble makers, as you'll see from forthcoming posts!
 
Nancy M. May 3, 2019
We moved upstate (to the Finger Lakes) a few years back. Our house up here is a converted barn in the woods. We see deer, Turkeys, foxes and coyotes. Unfortunately we have had other things too.

We had a large black snake in the basement that dropped down on to the plumber who became hysterical and refused to return. We had bats who terrorized us. The let them out they eat mosquitos lasted until we opened the window to let one out and two came in! (Don’t ask what we do now)

Then there were the wood chicks who constructed and under ground compound beneath the house and later make a borrow in the foam insulation in the car. They ate all the soy-based eco-friendly wire insulation and made the car smell like woodchuck. Woodchucks smell like a sort of combo of musk and port authority.

Then I was attacked by the rabid raccoon, and we found a small weasel living in the bowels of the house.

And then the squirrels moved in.

In other words... I feel your pain.
 
Nancy M. May 3, 2019
Woodchucks not “woodchicks”. The woodchicks are probably an Indy band or should be.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Wow! Love your description of a woodchuck's smell.
 
ivycat May 2, 2019
A squirrel once broke into my house, took a bite out of a tomato, ate a good chunk out of a birthday cake my mother in law had baked for my birthday and snuck back out while I was out for lunch. We even caught him on camera plotting his entry. Sneaky animals.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Sneaky, indeed.
 
Cali B. May 2, 2019
This feels like it might be going in the direction of one of my favorite This American Life episodes (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/510/fiasco).
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
:)
 
pamelarupright May 2, 2019
Some bats made my daughter’s bedroom wall an annual stop in their migration for about 3 years before we figured out what they were and how to evict them. She slept in the guest room for months! One possible fix involved us ripping open a whole wall - sadly that was not what finally worked though she did get to change wall color.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
I'm impressed she went back to sleeping there at all!
 
witloof May 2, 2019
I was just dipping into Cooking for Mr. Latte yesterday morning and wishing you would do some more writing. So glad to see you back in print!
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Thanks so much!
 
sf-dre May 2, 2019
At my old cottage, squirrels stole birdseed from the feeders and lived above the ceiling. After one got in the house, my landlord flushed them out and installed screens at entrance points to keep it that way. In addition to birds and squirrels, my current neighborhood has skunks, raccoons and an occasional coyote sighting.
 
tia May 3, 2019
My sister spent some time with "rat-zilla" living over her bedroom. One day something... liquid came out of the ceiling. She insisted the landlord deal with it NOW. So she came home that afternoon to maintenance personnel spraying chemicals into the gap and getting ready to cover it with mesh. She asked if they'd made sure whatever it was was gone. Apparently they hadn't. A very groggy raccoon made its way out, eventually. Then they patched up the access. "Rat-zilla" had not been back.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Oof!
 
Rhonda35 May 2, 2019
Even though I know what happens next, I am awaiting next week's installation with much anticipation! I love your story-telling talents.
 
Rhonda35 May 2, 2019
PS - I remain forever traumatized by my critter co-existence from my Philly days. A bed full of cockroaches will do that to a person!
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Ugh!
 
Eric K. May 2, 2019
Can't wait for the next installment! Loved reading about the early stages of your abode. Just be glad they were SQUIRRELS and not...well, you know. We went a year or so assuming our attic had squirrels (in Georgia, which made sense). Turned out they were rats. The creepy, crawly scurrying sound of their nails right above my bed—I will never get that out of my head.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
Yikes -- I suppose that was your prep for NYC subways?
 
Smaug May 5, 2019
A friend of mine had the lovely experience of a rat dying atop a light fixture over his bed (apparently a sick rat seeking warmth)- he woke one morning to find maggots dripping from the light fixture onto his bed.
 
Joanna S. May 2, 2019
Love this piece! When I was living alone in my grandparents' old house in Flushing I was convinced there were squirrels in the walls and on the vacant top floor—I heard rustling every morning and every night and was absolutely terrified. I neglected it for a few months before my very kind uncle came to deal with them. Squirrels roommates are no joke!!
 
Author Comment
Amanda H. May 4, 2019
It's a very specific sound, isn't it? Glad your uncle came to the rescue!
 
RHL May 2, 2019
This delightful tale makes me shudder with familiarity as I recall our own saga of Chip, Dale, Simon, Theodore, and Alvin. Only one chipmunk met an inglorious end.
 
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Amanda H. May 4, 2019
We should have named ours!