By Dennis Prichard
The story that follows was told to me by a very honest volunteer at a wildlife area. I believe every word to be true, as difficult as it might seem. The reason I’m reporting this tale is to illustrate the term “habituation” as it relates to animals.
An elderly couple pulled up to the picnic area of a campground with a box of chicken and their brand-new Lincoln. The car had just been purchased and had all the bells and whistles. As the couple walked the few yards to the picnic table, out popped a friendly squirrel. It was brazen and seemed unafraid. This provoked the gentleman to protest to the pan-handler, “Get out of here, ya little thief!”
In a split-second decision, the man took leave of his senses, took aim, and hurled the only thing he had handy – his car keys. He had been a pretty good pitcher in high school, but that was 60+ years ago and the keys missed their mark. The squirrel just knew he had been thrown a goody and picked up the keys, quickly scurrying up a large tree.
The couple couldn’t believe what had just transpired in the last 15 seconds of their lives. Suddenly an ear-splitting alarm went off on the Lincoln. The squirrel was nibbling on the key fob trying to crack this nut and reap the reward he was sure to be inside. Then the doors all locked! The couple was without transportation and without shelter now. The alarm went on and on.
The man hurriedly gathered fist-sized stones to throw at the varmint so it would drop those keys. Well, it worked, somewhat, as the squirrel dropped them but they fell in the crotch of the tree about 20 feet up. What were they to do now?
That’s when the volunteer showed up as he had heard the alarm while hiking into the picnic area off a nearby trail. The older couple seemed completely dumbfounded by the chain of events that had taken place in such a short period of time. The volunteer soon located the keys, shinnied up the tree and recovered them. There were two very grateful motorists that would not try anything like that again.
They learned how wildlife can be “habituated.” When someone can’t resist the cute little squirrel’s begging routine, both parties lose. The wildlife gets accustomed to being fed unhealthy food, and the people cause problems like having holes gnawed through their tents or, worse, receiving a nasty bite. Coolers are opened by wildlife in the middle of the night with ease. If they can do it in complete darkness, it seems like they can do it in their sleep!
You’ve heard of habituated bears having to be captured and flown off into deeper woods because they got too chummy with humans. Well, the smaller, not-as-cute animals like raccoons, skunks and sometimes even foxes adapt to our human food and garbage.
Protect yourself and the wildlife by keeping a clean camp, never feeding the wildlife anything, and think twice about throwing your car keys at the offender. Next time he may just drive off with the car! That would mean habituation has gone a little too far!
P.S. I know some of you may comment on bird feeders. They are okay where allowed, but I recommend taking these down at night so the bears and raccoons don’t habituate on them too.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.