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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I first became an environmentalist in my early teens. Summers spent at camp in the Haliburton Highlands of Ontario left me with a deep, abiding love of nature. But I believe it was my parsimony that actually led to me being a staunch conservationist. Why should we throw stuff away that can be recycled, reused and perhaps never needed to be produced in the first place?

In 1970, there was no roadside recycling in my neighbourhood or really any kind of recycling at all. A high-school project asked us to save one tree by recycling three tons of newspaper. My job was to collect newspapers, which I did by the wagon load. I don’t really remember whether we achieved our goal or what we actually did with the collected newspapers. But by the end of the semester, I felt I had earned my environmental stripes.

I recently fulfilled a life-long dream by retiring with my like-minded wife to our beloved Haliburton Highlands. We purchased a lovely home on a forested lot. The previous owner planted grass in the meadow and mowed and maintained it beautifully. I, on the other hand, decided to let the land grow wild, only occasionally trimming trees that were overgrowing the walking paths that ran through the property. If truth be known, my decision to let the property grow wild was more a function of my ineptitude as a gardener than my environmental convictions. The plant life was bound to grow better without any intervention from me.

We also encouraged the abundant wildlife to have free run of the property. We were periodically visited by deer, Great Blue Heron, woodpeckers, snakes, turtles, muskrat, otters, a large porcupine who liked to nap in one of our trees and of course, the ubiquitous squirrels. The only animals to cause us grief were the mice. While I believe that one should not disturb creatures in the wild, once they enter my home, they become vermin. We laid traps and regularly caught a mouse or two each month. The frequency of our catch helped me to quickly overcome my squeamishness. I briefly considered live traps but my revulsion of handling dead animals was doubled for live creatures. I did suffer some environmental guilt, which I was partially able to assuage by disposing of the dead mice near where we had previously seen a pair of “at risk” ribbon snakes sunning on the banks of the river. I like to think the snakes enjoyed the hint of peanut butter that was the mice’s last meal. I called the offering “meeces pieces.”

Camping solo gave me the new challenge I needed

Honk, hiss, flap - run! Every spring Canada Geese chase me away

While I may have been squeamish, I did not fear wild animals. I understood that they were more afraid of us than we were of them. I certainly did not fear the lowly squirrel which would sensibly flee whenever a person approached. So, it was not fear that made me shout in alarm at the squirrel that suddenly appeared in our living room one day. After all, it fled the moment I made a move toward it. But the thought of sharing my living space with a squirrel filled me with dread. Despite my lifelong deep love of nature, I was raised a city boy and overcoming one’s upbringing was harder than I thought.

My wife and I rallied our courage and managed to chase the squirrel out of the house. When it reappeared the next day, we started to make phone calls. We quickly learned that it was a bumper year for squirrels. That, combined with the disruption to the labour market caused by COVID-19, put us six months down on the pest control company’s waiting list. We chased the new squirrel out of the house and called a handyman for help.

The one thing I did not anticipate about my new life in the country was my total dependence on handymen. By the time he arrived, my wife and I had chased four squirrels out of our home, or perhaps it was a single squirrel that we chased out four times. I liked to believe it was one squirrel who had discovered an entry point rather than imagining that my house was in the middle of some sort of squirrel superhighway.

After having blocked off as many entry points as he could find, the handyman sat me down to have a serious conversation about trapping. In his opinion, it was indeed the same squirrel who had learned the trick of getting into my house. The squirrel needed to be dispatched. The handyman left me with a live trap but recommended against releasing it into the wild. I did not need much convincing. The trap was rather complicated and I would need to get in close and use two hands to eventually free the beast.

It took several tries as the hair-trigger had a tendency to be triggered either too late or too early. When we eventually caught the creature, I took the handyman’s advice and dispatched it. The less said about it, the better.

My wife and I celebrated our success by thoughtfully congratulating each other for a job well done. But our sense of satisfaction was short-lived as another squirrel appeared in our living room the next day.

And so, our ordeal began. It took over a month. The handyman had to return three times before the correct entry point was identified and filled. In-between, we dispatched four squirrels. For me, the worst part was turning a corner in the house and coming face to face with our intruder. It was unnerving.

I realize that, in today’s hyper-environmental climate, disposing of a wild animal is considered villainous. And I do, indeed, feel guilty. I truly believe that we share the planet with all of God’s creatures. We all have a sacred duty to leave the wildlife undisturbed in their natural habitat. But, of course, my house is the natural habitat for me and my wife.

Irv Handler lives in Haliburton, Ont.

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