Savage squirrel: An unusual attack in McGuffey Park

When four friends met for a picnic lunch one recent sunny Saturday, they expected to discuss the lecture they'd just attended on the relevance of nature to spirituality. Instead, one man wound up with deep cuts to his hand from a rambunctious rodent. Nature, it seemed, had a point to make.

The perpetrator of the March 15 attack in McGuffey Park was a squirrel, which many Charlottesvillians forget is a wild animal with razor-sharp teeth.

"I have experience with wild animals, and I know better," says the victim, computer programmer and self-professed animal lover Lonnie Murray. He had been offering the animal a strawberry.

"The squirrel leaped on my arm," recalls Murray. "His claws raked me. I thought I felt his teeth, but there was no bite mark." In his shock, Murray says he recoiled from the animal, likely deepening his cuts.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, I hope it doesn't bite me because there goes the rest of my week.'"

After detaching himself from the furry fury, Murray examined his injuries and decided they did not require medical attention. He washed the scratches and then applied both hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol– ouch!– to ward off infection.

"When they bite, they're rough," says the City's animal control officer, Bob Durrer. Unlike raccoons, Durrer notes, squirrels are not generally carriers of the rabies virus unless they have been bitten by an infected animal. But even without the deadly disease, their long teeth and sharp claws can inflict serious damage.

Moments earlier, a couple of three-year-olds in the same City park had been trying to catch the very same squirrel.

Ron Hughes, a wildlife biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says that the McGuffey squirrels– and all wild animals– should not be fed.

"If they don't receive handouts," says Hughes, "that behavior will slowly disappear."

But at a playground where parents and young children frequently play and picnic, keeping squirrels and rugrats apart may be easier said than done.

Removing the squirrels is one alternative, but Murray hopes it doesn't come to that. "Animals usually pay the price when we train them to bad behaviors," he says, suggesting that it is often easier to kill an animal than relocate it.

Officer Durrer notes that it's illegal to transport a wild animal and release it onto somebody else's property– unless you have permission.

And as the Game Department's Hughes explains, until human behavior changes, new squirrels will simply learn the same old tricks.

So, for now at least, it seems the attacking squirrel remains free to prowl McGuffey Park, and Murray hopes people can learn from his experience.

"More people are afraid of bats and snakes," he says, "but cute and fuzzy things are much more of a threat."


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