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 third in Amanda’s six-part series—check out her prior story here.)
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy buffeted New York City, leaving many low-lying neighborhoods underwater. Thousands of homes were damaged, and many people were left homeless. Living in Brooklyn Heights, high above New York Harbor, we were lucky: There were some tree limbs down but the neighborhood was relatively unscathed.
A few months after the hurricane, though, life in Brooklyn Heights started getting weird. These were the days when we held a weekly photo shoot for Food52 at my apartment. We cooked for eight hours, while the editors tapped away at their laptops on my kitchen table. Meanwhile, James, our photographer, shot everything in my bedroom, which gets the good, indirect, slightly cool northern light.
One day that fall, we photographed a self-watering planter for a post on the site. After the shoot wrapped, I kept the planter, which was overflowing with herbs, and put it in the corner of my dining area. With the flurry of dinner, clean-up, and bedtime reading, I forgot about it.
My husband, Tad, and I went to bed around 11. A few hours later, we were awakened by a loud crash in the kitchen. As we leapt from bed, I could see, down the short hallway, a small animal scurry from our dining area into the kitchen. I swore I saw a fluffy tail behind it. Or did I? By the time I reached the kitchen, the mystery creature was gone. It had left the planter in pieces and deposited its droppings all over our dining room floor.
Groggy and bewildered, Tad and I cleaned up the mess, puzzling over where the animal had escaped through the kitchen.
Our kitchen was designed by the previous owners, who had spared nearly no expense. The cabinetry was custom made. They put in a six-burner Viking stove, a Sub-Zero fridge, and a Miele dishwasher. They’d barely used any of the appliances, so it was all like new when we moved in.
But their designer had neglected to fill the space between the under-counter cabinets and their kickplates. He’d left just enough of an opening for a small animal to MacGyver over the kickplate, the rodent equivalent of jumping a subway turnstile. This, we figured out, was the squirrel’s escape route—over the kickplate, under the cabinet and back into the depths of the walls. Somewhere.
We dumped the self-watering planter on the curb. Tad transferred the droppings into a plastic bag, put the bag in the freezer to preserve for an expert to inspect, and called pest control. I Googled “squirrel droppings” and “rat droppings” to try to get a handle on what we were dealing with. I now know all about their dropping shapes and characteristics, and, while I’ll spare you the details, these turned out to be from a squirrel.
Things were quiet for a few days.
One night when Tad was out, I put the kids to bed, poured myself a bourbon, and sat in my usual late evening spot—an armchair in the corner of our open kitchen and dining room. When I was pregnant, we’d had the armchair made and fitted with a glider so it could double as a nursing chair. Tad and I liked its gentle rocking motion so much that we kept it intact, many years after nursing. I’d glide and sip bourbon while answering emails, because after long, stressful days, the womb-like rocking kept me going.
Mid-rocking, I suddenly heard scratching and clanking just a few feet away in the kitchen. The sounds were coming from the cabinet next to the sink, the one containing my cast iron pans, never-used German holiday baking paraphernalia, an immersion blender, and large steel bowls. I was not about to open its doors. I banged on the cabinet hoping to scare away the animal, but this tactic only emboldened the beast, who ramped up his scampering. I simply had no idea how to get rid of the intruder.
I was also tired of feeling under attack in our own home. Tired of the demands of parenthood. Tired of feeling overworked and over 40. I dragged a heavy chair to the cabinet to pin the doors closed. This left a thin barrier between me and insanity. The scurrying sounds quieted. Feeling like a prisoner in our own home, with no real options for dealing with the wild animal in our kitchen, I went back to my laptop and my Stockholm Syndrome and worked on this website about eating and living well at home.
By morning, the animal was gone. By night, everything in the cabinet had been sterilized.
I banged on the cabinet hoping to scare away the animal, but this tactic only emboldened the beast, who ramped up his scampering. I simply had no idea how to get rid of the intruder.
I knew from our last brush with squirrels that you have to call in a squirrel expert rather than an exterminator to deal with an infestation. Given our dismal results with the last squirrel expert, we turned this time to a Yelp star named “Trapper John.”
Trapper John was a compact, agile man, who seemed amused by squirrels. He took his work seriously and had an intuitive approach to all things squirrel. He also liked to flirt with death as he climbed around and dangled off the roof of our brownstone, peering everywhere until he found the hidden hole through which the squirrels had been entering and leaving.
“Squirrels,” he explained to Tad, “are rats with a better PR guy.” We were starting to see this darker side. Squirrels were now our enemy.
John felt confident he could get the squirrels out of the building by installing a one-way “squirrel door” over the hole they’d carved in the roof and hammering copper sheets over any other holes he could find in the roofline. Squirrels leave their nests every day to go forage. So now they would be able to get out, but not back in. And, according to John, squirrels wouldn’t then gnaw another hole next to the old one to get back in—instead, they’d look elsewhere for a new Airbnb.
But—and there is always a “but” when it comes to squirrels—if we wanted to get rid of them for good, we needed to cut down the large maple tree that shades our deck and stretches upward to our upstairs neighbors’ roofdeck. The tree, John said, is just a ladder for them to climb onto the building and find another hole in the roof.
The tree matter would take some diplomacy with our downstairs neighbor, a federal judge, who felt an intense loyalty to this tree. For years, whenever our previous upstairs neighbors would get the tree pruned so its limbs wouldn’t encroach on their roof-deck, the judge would stand outside in his bathrobe, arms crossed, to make sure only the minimum was trimmed.
We loved the tree, too, but we were done with squirrels. And we finally had a clear proposal for remedying the situation. We just needed to figure out a good time to broach the topic with our co-op neighbors.
That was when we got an email from our neighbor who lives in the garden apartment, reporting a rat sighting. It was a first for the building, and alarming in every way, so I did my research. Rats like to stay on the ground floors. As second floor inhabitants, that meant, thankfully, we were in a safe rat-free zone. Pest control was brought in (another John) and rat remediation began. John 2 set traps, put out poison cakes—which are supposed to make the rats thirsty enough to seek water outside the building, causing them to, in theory, leave before they die—and stopped up the hole the rat had used to get into the building.
These measures may sound cruel, but we were trying to do the minimum necessary to regain control of our space—our home! And this was a much milder course of action than what my father did when I was growing up. He was always engaged in epic battles with groundhogs, who mowed down his landscaping for breakfast. Battles with nature have a way of distorting your moral compass. At a particularly low moment, my father planted M-80s in a groundhog hole. Explosions ensued.
The next day, when I got home from work, the kids were in their room doing homework and Tad was in his study. As I walked into the kitchen to drop my things, I saw a large flash of grey—and no fluffy tail—scamper across the kitchen floor and into that space between the cabinet and kickplate: the rodent turnstile. This was clearly a rat. My internetting had failed me. Rats do climb to upper floors.
I don’t like remembering the next few days, which involved stuffing the turnstile with steel wool, hiding all of our food, and listening with terror as the rat gnawed on the cabinets from underneath. Rats are like honey badgers. They don’t care. I would bang on the cabinets to scare one away and it wouldn’t even pause from its chewing. Normal people with children might have thought it prudent to move out until matters were resolved, but a hotel wasn’t an option, and none of our family live nearby. We considered borrowing a friend’s cat for a few nights to do battle with the rat, but meanwhile we just carried on.
As I walked into the kitchen to drop my things, I saw a large flash of grey—and no fluffy tail—scamper across the kitchen floor and into that space between the cabinet and kickplate: the rodent turnstile. This was clearly a rat.
Soon, though, we had a reason to feel a little better. The New York Times ran a story about how Brooklyn Heights was experiencing a rat infestation due to Hurricane Sandy. When the waters rose around Brooklyn, the rats sought the higher ground of the Heights and now there was a turf war. We were not alone! Others were sharing our misery!
Except that they probably didn’t have squirrels, too. Rats with better PR and regular old rats don’t like each other. The squirrels were coming down into our apartment to mark their territory. The rats were coming up to stake their claim. Rodent-mageddon was converging on our apartment.
John 2 set out more poison cakes and installed rat traps beneath our cabinets, and one called a “T Rex trap” (which he basted with peanut butter) on both our kitchen floor and above our stacking washer/dryer. The rat ignored these, behavior John 2 referred to as being “trap shy.” If a rat sees a comrade killed by a rat trap, they learn to avoid traps. Naturally, our rat was trap shy and managed to evade every one of the traps.
The scurrying and scratching only got worse and spread to all corners of our apartment. When we were in bed, we could hear the rats in every wall and behind our radiators, facing off with the squirrels and/or gnawing toward us. With nothing to do but wait for the poison to take effect, I began circling the rooms in our apartment, slapping my hands against the walls to try to scare them away. I mostly just frightened Tad, who thought I was losing my mind. I was.
The great news? Within a few weeks, the squirrels were gone. The rats were gone, too!
The bad news? One rodent had died in our bathroom wall. For two dreadfully long months, the stench of death infused our toothbrushing, steamed up during our showers, and cast a pall over our lives. I burned the strongest candle I could find, one with a lavender scent. And ever since then, whenever I smell lavender, I smell dead rat/squirrel.
That spring, we recounted our squirrel woes to all of our neighbors, and even the judge took pity on us and agreed that the tree would be removed. It seemed the only reasonable solution to ensure we would never have to relive this hell.
As tragic as it felt to cut down a tree, the act was mesmerizing to watch. Because the tree stood on a small strip of garden between two brownstones, it had to be removed carefully and in pieces. We hired a family-run company. The oldest and most fit man on the team scaled the tree, with a handsaw hanging from his waist and a chainsaw dangling from a series of ropes. He began by cutting the lower limbs in segments and lowering each piece by rope to a man on the ground. A boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve carried the pieces out to the street, where they had a chipper ready to grind each piece to bits. In just a few hours, this man took the entire tree down, piece by piece, as if he were trimming a head of broccoli into florets.
With the tree gone, our view out the side and back of our apartment transformed. Light poured across the deck. We could see the tops of buildings in lower Manhattan—and sky! Instead of looking at the tree from our deck, we now saw clouds and airplanes passing. It wasn’t a better view, just fresh in a way that felt like a renewal.
We couldn’t help feeling a little smug. Take that, you jackass squirrels.
Check back next week for part four of Amanda’s series.