Entertainment » Vol. 11

Having Enough to Retire On – What We Can Lean From Squirrels

By Alisa Singer

Illustration by Alisa Singer

Illustration by Alisa Singer

Back in the days when we were all fat and comfortable, wrapped in the security of our bloated brokerage accounts (who knew then that it was bubble wrap!), people would talk about the “Number”.  In Baby Boomer parlance the “Number” is the amount of money you need to have in the bank to be able to retire and still maintain the lifestyle you so richly deserve and to which you have become accustomed. Of course that’s all academic now since none of us will be able to retire, ever, but back then I tried to think whom else do we know that faces similar issues that might be able to provide a guiding philosophy for this thorny question.  And I thought of squirrels because they are obliged to make decisions like this every year during their entire adult lives.

You see, when squirrels gather acorns and nuts for the long winter they hide them either in one huge hole or, as the common gray squirrel does, in several hundred different places, exercising behavior known as “scatter hoarding” (what investment advisors would call portfolio diversification).  The purpose of the hoards is to allow the squirrels to rest quietly in their nests during the winter, leisurely cracking nuts while watching reruns of I Love Lucy, without ever having to shovel the walk or put up with unpleasant commuting conditions. Snuggled together, they leave their nests only as necessary to “carry out” from their various food caches (presumably the ones that don’t deliver).
The specific thing I wondered about squirrels is how they calculate their “Number”. In other words, how does a particular squirrel figure out how many acorns and nuts he needs to maintain his standard of living during his season of “retirement” and can we borrow this instinct to help us to calculate when we finally have enough “nuts” so that we can stop hoarding and head home to our own comfortable nests.

I proceeded to research the subject in the way all of the finest academicians do, I Googled  “squirrels gathering nuts”. The result was disappointing.  Rather than relying on some extraordinary scientific phenomenon it appears, according to Almanac.com, that squirrels simply “…gather food until there’s no more to gather.  They are rather greedy.” (Yet another parallel to humankind, but not what I was hoping to find.)  Okay, so the squirrel doesn’t know any more than we do when it’s time to get out of the rat race, even though he is, more-or-less, a rat.

It’s amusing to try to imagine how the squirrel might handle the unanticipated loss of a significant portion of his portfolio of savings as a result of a forest recession or other Act of God.  Would he immediately cut back on berries and nuts and switch to fungi, twigs and bark?  Put the second nest up for sale? And is there such a thing as a bailout for squirrels and, if so, what would that look like? Would “They” somehow replenish the caches of squirrels that had imprudently loaned their hoards to other squirrels who wanted to buy nice fur-lined nests they couldn’t afford and, if so, exactly who would “They” be? (Those are trick questions. The truth is there is no “They” since squirrels have no federal government to fall back on, which is bad news for them but then again, they presumably keep 100% of their income.)

There are other interesting facts about squirrels that I came across in my research, and I found the comparisons between male squirrels and male humans to be especially striking.  For example, it appears that, like men, male squirrels require twice as much time as females to groom themselves. (Squirrels are the cleanest of rodents.) I can just see the female squirrel now, front legs folded, tapping her little paws and swishing her tail irritably – “You ready yet Rocky? Mother’s been waiting in the hollow of the tree for twenty minutes already!”  And, this next tidbit will come as no surprise, the male squirrel also seems to be “commitment challenged”, abandoning the female promptly after mating, leaving her to raise the young alone.

But the most impressive information I unearthed about the squirrel is that, though his brain is roughly the size of a walnut, when spring arrives he is generally able to locate approximately 50% of the hundreds of places where he hid his hoard of nuts during the previous fall! I’m sure you can guess where I’m heading with this.  How can this rodent, with his teeny hippocampus, remember where he hid all those teeny nuts six months earlier when you and I can’t remember half the time which section in the mall parking lot we left our giant SUV, even though it was only an hour ago and we didn’t hide it under several layers of dirt.

But surely the squirrel’s enhanced memory skills are not an indication that he is more highly evolved than we are, because if that were the case, he would not be leaping from one treetop to another, kamikaze-style, without the benefit of a net (or at least a bungee cord), not to mention life insurance. But come to think of it, perhaps the average squirrel is slightly more intelligent than mankind.  After all, his investment loss ratio is roughly equivalent to what mine has been over the last year, and his fees are definitely a lot lower.

At the end of the day, sadly, it does not appear there is much we can learn from the ubiquitous squirrels that share our backyards, parks and the occasional attic.  But there is one pretty important lesson we humans could certainly teach those squirrels, and they would do well to listen up.  It goes like this: when you’re standing on your hind legs in the middle of a road and you see four large round black rubbery things rolling towards you at an alarming speed, don’t just stand there staring – drop the nuts and run like hell!

Alisa Singer has written and published humorous articles on a variety of subjects, which are available on request.  She is also the author of the book I Still Wanna Be A… and has exhibited her paintings in various galleries across the country. She is a practicing corporate lawyer, wife and mother. Contact: ASingerAuthor@gmail.com.

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