The indoor wilds at outdoor parks

I got used to sharing space with critters – up to a point. 

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
A family hikes above timberline in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colo.

Frank Lloyd Wright was the champion of organic architecture, a style of building meant to harmonize with nature. But I’m not sure harmonizing with chipmunks was what he had in mind.

During my years with the US National Park Service, I spent six months working in a visitor center designed by Wright’s firm, Taliesin Associated Architects. The building was long and low, its sandstone exterior wrapped in funky, triangular
metalwork. One co-worker called it the “pink palace,” referring to the color of its walls and its use as headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park. Several other employees and I staffed the park’s phone and radio system from a room in the basement that smelled permanently of burned popcorn, across the hall from a break room with a refrigerator labeled “No Dead Animals.”

I was sitting at my desk when I first heard a thump in the suspended ceiling. Dark shapes streaked across the light panel above my head, rattling the plastic. Moments later, they zoomed back in the opposite direction, leaving me an impression of noses and tails, each tail followed by another nose. It was like watching a shadow puppet performance, but with real animals.

“Baby chipmunks,” a fellow dispatcher told me. “They live in the ceiling.” 

I may have lifted an eyebrow. After four summers working in the parks, I had grown accustomed to sharing indoor space with wildlife. Plunk down a building in the mountains and you’ll find many creatures willing to extend their habitat right into yours.

At the time, they were seen as little more than an unhygienic nuisance. Frequently my government housing provided only a weak barrier against invaders – a true blurring of the lines between outdoors and in.

While living in one of these especially permeable old houses, I called maintenance to ask for help. I loved the house, despite the numerous holes in its walls, allegedly from past attempts to drive out bats. But I’d grown tired of finding unspeakable things in my couscous, and I was disturbed when my roommate found a live mouse in our refrigerator. It was enjoying a salad.

“Get a cat,” the maintenance guy said.

“I’m not allowed to have a cat.”

“Get a cat,” he said.

I already had a cat. To measure his effectiveness, my roommates and I had pinned a scorecard to the wall, noting successes and escapes. At one point the tally stood at Cat 14, Mice 3. But it still felt as if we were losing. Another roommate startled a yellow-bellied marmot in the hallway. I wasn’t there, but I pictured her walking down the hall in fuzzy socks, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, as she tripped over a five-pound rodent with giant yellow teeth. 

We would need a new scorecard: Marmot 1, Cat 0.

Against this history of home wildlife infestation, chipmunks in the workplace seemed almost an amenity; their antics provided a bit of stress relief on difficult days. If they weren’t housebroken, at least they weren’t skittering about at ankle level. And from the chipmunks’ perspective, I assume, we humans were very little bother. You might even say we were living in harmony.

As summer progressed, the shadows chasing each other across our lights grew bigger; our baby chipmunks were maturing fast. Their charming scamper across the light panels had become more of an athletic bounding.

I had just answered a call one day when I heard a loud bump, and a ceiling panel clattered down on my head. I dropped the phone as I fell out of my office chair, looking up just in time to see a fluffy brown tail disappear over the gap in the ceiling. Somehow our furry action hero had dislodged the light panel while retaining enough momentum to leap for the edge.

I pulled myself off the carpet, laughing with my co-workers, and noticed the phone dangling over the side of the desk by its cord. Was there still someone on the line? I picked up the handset, preparing to explain to a future park visitor the crash, the squeal, the dropped phone, and the giggling.

“I’m sorry, but you’re not going to believe what just happened.”

I don’t think he did.

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