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Opinion >  Column

Paul Turner: Natural selection and the Spokane squirrel

A gray tree squirrel finds a snack amongst the turning colors of a maple tree, Oct. 10, 2012, along the 500 block of west Waverly Place in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A gray tree squirrel finds a snack amongst the turning colors of a maple tree, Oct. 10, 2012, along the 500 block of west Waverly Place in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Becky DeVries has noticed something on her drive into town recently.

“I’ve seen quite a few dead squirrels in the roadway. Squished. Smashed.”

More of them than usual, she means.

“It occurred to me that this is when they are gathering their winter food. So I was thinking you should mention in your column watching out for scampering squirrels this time of year, the same way that it is mentioned to watch out for bike riders, runners, kids out of school, et cetera. Just a thought.”

OK. I’m all for drivers being watchful, Becky.

There’s a problem with squirrels though. They are fast, unpredictable and lack any real understanding of the threat to them posed by vehicular traffic.

In a nutshell, they just don’t get it.

What driver hasn’t experienced having a squirrel dart out directly in front of the car? They don’t always use crosswalks, you know.

Eventually perhaps, natural selection will produce Spokane squirrels that know to look both ways before crossing the street. But until then, keep an eye out for them. Not that you’ll necessarily be able to hit the brakes in time.

Which brings us to a theory I’ve had for ages.

It’s this. Sooner or later, if you live in Spokane long enough, you will run over a squirrel.

It’s just a part of living here, like complaining about inadequate snow-plowing.

Some of us run over more than one – a lot more.

This theory has a corollary: The Spokane residents who run over the most squirrels tend to be the people predisposed to be most upset by this.

Now it’s utterly normal to experience a moment of anguish when your car creams a squirrel. Who doesn’t at least wince when both a front and back tire make lethal contact?

Thump. Thump.

But it’s harder on some of us than others. And those for whom running over these rodents is especially wrenching seem to accidentally create the most roadkill.

There’s no way to prove this, of course. I’m going on anecdotal evidence here.

But years of hearing stories about these unfortunate incidents have led me to believe those among us who are most tender-hearted about animals do most of the squirrel snuffing.

Sad, I know.

Yes, it could be that the individuals most apt to recount these grisly encounters are those for whom such accidents leave the most lasting impressions. But I wouldn’t be too quick to rule out cosmic irony. It’s where the rodent meets the road.

Of course, squirrels are not the only animal victims of roadway run-overs. Moreover, Spokane probably isn’t home to the greatest number of roadkill incidents.

That “honor” would undoubtedly go to some city with greater population density, higher traffic volume and more wildlife-supporting rainfall.

But drivers squash so many squirrels here in Spokane it’s a wonder their numbers remain so robust.

If the car-caused carnage seems greater at this time of year maybe it really is because the squirrels are busy preparing for winter. Perhaps they are hyperactive right now, bounding across busy streets right and left.

Yes, it’s risky for them. But they are just trying to make a living.

Is it too much to ask that we keep an eye out for them as they make their scatterbrained rounds? No, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

Some of our own species have been known to look at phones while driving. You tell me. Which is the real squirrelly behavior out on Spokane’s roads?

Then and now

It’s nice that more and more young people are lately willing to speak well of Spokane. And there’s no denying there are good things happening here. It’s not all about being unable to afford rent in Seattle.

But brace yourself for a shock. Today’s 20-somethings are not the first young people to decide that staying in Spokane is a defendable choice. If you talk to locals who were in their 20s decades ago, here are a few things you do not hear them say.

“I knew if we just hung in there, some later generation of self-congratulatory young people would save us from our boring, unimaginative selves.”

“Gee, I wish we’d had back then some of the cool things Spokane has today. When I was young, all we had was a world’s fair, Triple-A baseball, an African-American mayor and downtown Christmas lights visible from Outer Space.”

“I could not be more pleased that we’re permitted to be proud of Spokane now that a few current 20-somethings have declared our city is OK because they are staying here for now. That’s swell.”

“I’m so glad the trendy kids want to stay here now. I guess, for awhile there, we were the only city in America where some young people felt the impulse to move away from home.”

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