Of all the creatures in the Southwest, rodents (in the form of rock squirrels and different varieties of mice) are perhaps the most troublesome, hazardous, and destructive to people, their health, and their possessions.
Rock squirrels look remarkably cute when they sit up and beg like your pet dog, which they do often at any place you’ll find a lot of people hanging around. People become entranced, perhaps feeling like they’re communing with nature, and willingly feed the creatures. What they don’t realize is that squirrels are just rodents-rats with fluffy tails! Being rodents, they can carry the same diseases, including bubonic plague.
With the food and attention given to them, squirrels are fearless and will actually climb up into your lap to take food right out of your hand. And whether or not you feed them, they often bite—yes, even the hand that feeds them! Don’t be misguided into thinking that squirrels feel any affection towards you! They simply know that people carry food, and that’s ALL that matters to them. It is extremely frustrating to watch people constantly feeding the squirrels, completely oblivious to the hazards they pose—especially since squirrel bites are some of the most common injuries at Grand Canyon. Don’t feed the animals! You are not doing them any good, are taking unnecessary risks with your health and safety, and are ultimately causing the need to have the animals destroyed when they become too aggressive. And remember, this applies to all wildlife—even deer!
Don’t even thing of leaving your backpack, fanny pack, or snacks unattended for a moment; squirrels are extremely fast and have razor-sharp teeth that can slice through fabric or plastic in an instant. Even as careful as I am, I’ve had squirrels destroy a very expensive internal frame backpack and also chew through a fanny pack—with me standing right next to it! That’s how fast and sneaky they are. Once you’ve had a squirrel get into your food or chew through something, you won’t think they’re so cute anymore! Squirrels are active during daylight hours, so you won’t have to deal with them when darkness comes. But don’t get too comfortable, that’s just the changing of the guard!
Once dusk starts to fall, you can look at the ground and think it’s moving! No, it’s not an earthquake and there’s nothing wrong with your eyes, there are simply large numbers of mice running around the grounds looking for the crumbs that people drop while eating. In fact, while sitting around camp at Indian Garden Campground and other popular areas, it is extremely common to feel a mouse climb up your leg or run over your foot. You can tell by their shear numbers that this is a popular area with people who aren’t very careful with food. Mice aren’t the only reason to be careful not to drop any crumbs; guess what eats mice? Snakes, of course! And I don’t know too many people who are wild about sleeping with snakes! Mice can also carry an often-fatal disease known as hantavirus.
Victims of the disease will often feel as if they are coming down with a flu with symptoms that include fever, muscle aches, cough and headache. They worsen quickly and fluid begins to accumulate in the lungs. Death usually occurs from acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a type of lung failure. Hantavirus is carried in the excrement of deer mice, a very common mouse in the southwest. The only confirmed case in the park itself was a river guide who was sleeping on the beach next to the Colorado River. Camping beneath the stars, a mouse ran over his face. He batted at it half-asleep, scaring it and causing it to let loose some bodily fluid. Luckily he remembered the incident a short time later when he he became ill and was able to get treatment right away. He survived. This is not meant to scare you, it is simply to encourage you to be careful. To find out more on the diseases that rodents carry and how to prevent them, check out the Center for Disease Control website.
Although not rodents, other animals to beware of are skunks and ringtails. Skunks also hang around campsites. They are attracted by the easy food and you will often hear them running around in the dark after most people have gone to bed. The majority of people don’t have to be told to stay away from skunks, but be careful when walking around at night that you don’t startle one. The consequences could be potent!
Ringtails are actually related to raccoons. They are very attractive animals with a masked face and a long, bushy tail covered with black and white rings-hence its name. The tail is very long, making up half of the animal’s two to three foot length. Ringtails normally don’t pose a problem for people personally, only their food. They are extremely intelligent and creative, able to find ways to get to some of the best stashed food. They can climb most anything and have even been known to open zippers! Ringtails are nocturnal, meaning that they are active during the night. And even though they are difficult to actually catch a peek of, the creatures are not overly shy. My favorite story is that of the boy scout that went to bed without brushing his teeth. He had braces on and there was still food caught in this teeth. The boy scout was rudely awakened in the night by a ringtail sitting on his chest eating the food from his braces!
Again, be careful with your food and backpacks. If you are staying at Bright Angel, Indian Garden, or Cottonwood Campgrounds in the canyon, use the ammo boxes provided to store your food and trash. Be aware that ammo boxes are no longer available at Hermit Creek and Monument Creek campsites. People were being lazy and disrepectful and leaving trash in them so the National Park Service finally had to remove them. You will now have to find a way to store your food to keep the animals out. I cannot believe the things some people will do to mess it up for everyone!
Don’t forget to empty your backpack pockets of any snacks that you may have stashed here and there; the rodents will chew through your pack to get to it. When hanging your food in other areas, take the food out of the pack and store it in a smooth-sided stuff sack. The purpose for this is so that even if the animals get to the bag from above, they have nothing to get a purchase on. Flaps and zippers allow them the chance to grip something while working their way into the food. Also, don’t use plastic for hanging your food! Animals and ravens equate plastic with food!
Don’t store food in your tent either. Even if you are in the tent at the time, rodents can and will chew their way through the tent walls to get to the food. Mice will climb right over you in the process! They are pretty fearless and amazingly destructive for their size.
So how do you keep the animals away from your food bag? I’ve had good luck with tying a length of parachute cord between two trees or rocks and then hanging the food bag from the middle of the line. If you do this, make sure that the bag doesn’t hang low enough for animals to get to it from ground level. I’ve even made use of my walking sticks by sticking them into a crack high in a rock wall and hanging my bag from it.