I am not a rat

In defense of an underrated urban animal

I'm afraid I can no longer hesitate. I rise in defense of the squirrel, our most underrated urban animal.

I first noticed the trend more than 20 years ago, during a squirrel conversation with my friend and fellow house-renter Gubba. "They're rats," proclaimed Gubba. "Nothing but rats."

I chuckled cravenly, if only to "get along."

But I've been hearing the same idea ever since, with chilling frequency. Then, just the other night, from my friend Steve: "They're rats. Rats with tails."

Rats have tails, I reminded Steve. But the gist of his semi-coherent outburst is clear: It's another slam at squirrels. And I think the attitude is a dangerous path for us all.

For one thing, squirrels simply cannot be rat-equivalents. If they are, that means we have rats -- disease-carrying, slimy rats -- running all over the place. Why do that to ourselves? In fact, they'd be the worst kind of rats, since the rats we already have do us the favor of hiding, rather than openly flaunting their sliminess.

But more importantly, I like squirrels. I think they're smart.

Did you know that squirrels can hear through two panes of glass, and usually pay attention to what is going on inside the houses they live among? And that they are furthermore very curious about anyone singing loud versions of Merle Haggard songs?

Mainly, though, I like how they play. Granted, they gather nuts. They eat. But they spend a lot of time chasing each other around, or jumping from tree to tree or straddling branches soaking up the sun. In fact, the soaking-up-the-sun pose is almost too lascivious, hinting at levels of sensuality that only bolster my assertion that we should take squirrels very seriously.

Then there is the whole relationship between squirrels and cats.

My cats chase, the squirrels feint. They play hide-and-seek on the trees. One squirrel in my current circle takes delight in running back and forth, back and forth along our chain-link fence, tormenting my cat who follows excitedly below.

Once, in another house with another cat, I glanced in the backyard to see a squirrel eating our tomatoes in the garden, and the cat laying right next to it, half-sleeping, soaking up the sun, lulled by the sound of munching.

This was a bond, a mystical link between species. So not long after I spent part of an afternoon making friends with a squirrel on the broad front lawn of the Griggs-Midway Building, over on University Avenue in St. Paul.

It was gratifying. There was a connection. And now I'm to believe that in fact what I was doing was gamboling on the lawn of a public place of commerce with a rat? I'm sorry -- I can't accept that.

I can't…unless we can make a complete mental adjustment and begin perceiving rats as adorable and funny and playful. That would certainly would be useful, if we could do it.

"Hey, look! A rat just popped out of the toilet!"

"Oh, fer cute!"

I don't think we're there yet. So let's keep rats and squirrels distinct, shall we?