Top part of Community Christmas tree finally aglow

Squirrel chewing blamed for failure of some lights at Nov. 29 ceremony

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A prominent section of the Christmas tree in Esther Short Park now glows along with the rest of the large Douglas fir.

During the Nov. 29 community tree-lighting ceremony, a portion near the top remained dark after Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt led a crowd of 2,500-plus people in a countdown in Propstra Square and turned on the lights.

The LED lights had been checked before the big reveal, but either a lone squirrel or a scurry of squirrels had a pre-ceremony snack, causing about half of a strand not to work, said Jeff St. Mary of St. Mary's Services, the company that has decorated the community tree each year for more than a decade.

On Thursday, St. Mary and his crew put up replacement lights.

In all, there's about 9,000 lights on the tree, which stands higher than 90 feet tall.

This wasn't the first time squirrels in the park have caused problems, but the rascals typically wait until later in the month to try to eat the bright new addition to their homes, St. Mary said.

He'd like to have animal control officers temporarily remove the squirrels from the park, but that's not going to happen, said Paul Scarpelli, director of Clark County Animal Control.

"We are not interested in moving the squirrels out of Esther Short Park," Scarpelli said. "They are perfectly fine."

Scarpelli said the squirrels are probably trying to eat the lights because the weather has been so cold they can't dig in the frozen ground.

"In general, the food supply is diminished," Scarpelli said.

Light-eating squirrels aren't unique to Vancouver. At the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden's PNC Festival of Lights, zoo workers have started spraying hot sauce with habanero peppers on light strands to keep squirrels away, according to a Nov. 24 news story on cincinnati.com. When the zoo hung incandescent lights, squirrels would "unscrew them from their sockets and place them in nests, apparently thinking they were acorns," wrote reporter John Johnston. Smaller, energy-efficient LED lights cannot be unscrewed, so now squirrels are chewing through the cords.

"In some regards, it's actually worse," said Chad Yelton, the zoo's director of marketing and public relations, was quoted as saying. "Because with (incandescents), if they unscrew the bulb, we can replace it. But when they cut the cord, we're not replacing the strand."

In San Antonio, Texas, city officials in 2011 considered removing 1.76 million LED lights along the city's River Walk because of extensive damage from squirrels, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Squirrels are natural chewers

The story quoted Steve McCusker, executive director of the San Antonio Zoo, as saying, "I have no idea of what goes on in a squirrel's mind."

McCusker, as well as those who have done battle with what are generally viewed as the cutest of rodents, observed they are natural chewers.

"If they have to go around (the lights) or over them, they will sniff at them, play with them, and if they get their hands on them, they are going to chew," McCusker was quoted as saying.

Asked whether animal control would consider spraying hot sauce on the Christmas tree in Esther Short Park, Scarpelli said he'll defer to the new head of the Vancouver parks department.

St. Mary provided the additional lights Thursday at no extra cost.

Sponsors for the annual tree-lighting ceremony, part of the Vancouver Rotary Foundation Festival of Trees, include Waste Connections, Riverview Community Bank and Clark Public Utilities.