SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Natalka Farrell doesn’t know why, but for the past two years the squirrels in her neighborhood have been out to get her.

The squirrels keep building nests underneath the hood of her van, and in the process gnaw through the ignition wires, radiator hoses, even the hood’s insulation. Since September 2005, when the squirrels first targeted her 1994 Mercury Villager, Farrell has been hit seven times. But this winter was the worst, with the bushy-tailed rodents striking repeatedly over the last month. Her repair bills now total $3,500, she said during a recent interview in her living room, producing a folder of bills from the mechanics who have worked on the van.

“We see this from time to time,” said mechanic Jeff Pinkava, who performed several of the more recent repairs. “But this has been truly unbelievable. It looks like there’s a tornado that goes on under the hood.” The second time the van was towed to Pinkava’s Exxon station – the squirrels gnaw through so much wiring that the vehicle is always left inoperable – the mechanic lifted the hood, only to find “a beautifully constructed nest, with three babies in it.

,” Pinkava said.

While Farrell finally has her van back, she fears it will happen again; and according to wildlife experts, her fears are not unfounded.

While some experts suggested the van be parked in the garage, that is not an option for Farrell, who has multiple sclerosis.

Farrell uses a small motor scooter to get around and there is not enough room for the scooter to get alongside the van when it’s in the garage. So Farrell has to park in the driveway.

But when the squirrels attack, she is left with no means to get around. She can’t rent another car because her van is specially outfitted with hand controls.

“I feel like a prisoner,” said Farrell, who is also angry at the town for doing nothing about the squirrel situation.

“We pay a lot of taxes, (but) they say it’s not their problem,” she said.

Farrell jokes that the squirrels should seek out vehicles with a little more status than her 13-year-old van. Her neighbors “have better looking cars,” she says.

But the matter remains extremely frustrating, she says, given everything else on her plate.

Whether it’s medical-related or just an errand, Farrell drives the van three or four times a week.

Such intermittent use could well be a factor in why she’s having the squirrel problem, said Larry Herrighty, who heads the state Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.

“Sometimes squirrels will get into a vehicle that’s not used that often,” Herrighty said. “If the car were running every day, it may not be the best place to be.”

“This is breeding season … and they look at the cavity (under the hood) as a protected environment in their area,” he said.

“They like to chew and sometimes they want to make a nest in such a protected environment. Usually, it involves one squirrel, but it may have taught it to offspring.”

Herrighty said when problems like this arise, the best thing to do is to remove the problem animal and transfer it to another location.

The problem is not an uncommon one, he said.

Hope Kosch-Davison knows that first-hand. She is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The volunteer was called upon at least four times last year to remove squirrels that nested inside cars.

The squirrels are having to contend with a shrinking habitat, she said.

Meanwhile, Farrell hired a company that has set up traps near her house and the van in hopes of resolving the problem. That contract set her back another $400.

But every morning, she still wonders whether the van will start.

“And then I have to go out and check the car in the cold, even if I am not going anywhere, to make sure they haven’t started another nest,” she said.

“I live in fear,” Farrell said. “I really feel I’m not going to win.”


(Gabriel H. Gluck is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at ggluck(at)starledger.com.)


AP-NY-03-09-07 1552EST

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