I live in a two-story house and my office is on the second floor. Months ago, working late at night, I began to hear a noise in the wall of my office. “BAM, BAM, BAM,” it went, causing me to jump each and every time the noise started. Clearly, there was a critter on the outside wall of the house. Or worse yet, it had burrowed inside the wall. Unintimidated, I would pound back and yell, “BAM, BAM, BAM, to you too! Get off my wall!” The noise would stop and then begin again. Could there be a snake in the wall? No, a slithering snake wouldn’t be so noisy. Maybe a mouse, but the noise was too loud for a tiny mouse. It would have to be a large rat. Yikes! I have rats on my property? I’ve never seen one. It must be a squirrel.
On and on this went for several nights. The annoying sounds to which I responded by banging the wall from the inside, would cease and then start again. Four late nights into this routine, I decided this game wasn’t funny any more. I got a flashlight and went outside. The noise was on the second-story of the side of the house that has an enclosed garden. Twenty ft. hedges provide a privacy screen and there are several large trees. Standing in the dark in my pajamas that proclaimed “Princess,” I shined the light on the side of the house. There was nothing. And then I saw it. Along the roofline was an animal. My brain was working at lightspeed to process what I was seeing, but it was dark, I didn’t have my glasses, the animal was 20-ft. above me, and I had never seen this animal before.
An owl? No, that can’t be it, owls can’t move like that, but it does have big nocturnal eyes. It’s a rabbit. But the ears aren’t long enough. And what would a rabbit be doing on the roof? The animal would stare at me through the light and then disappear around the corner of the house, returning for a few seconds, and disappearing again. It’s a cat. No, a cat couldn’t hang on to the roofline. It’s a bat. No, the head is too big. It’s a rat. No, too fluffy, and it has bigger eyes and a furrier tail than a rat.
Just as I was thinking I needed a closer look, the animal must have thought exactly the same thing. It stood on its hind legs, put its arms out to its sides, appeared to have on a cape, and like Greg Louganis going off the high dive in the Olympics, it began to fly. Toward. My. Face. With my flashlight pointed into the black night sky, I saw a yellow under-belly. The animal had taken flight and looked like a square yellow potholder that could fly. Toward. My. Face.
You have never seen someone running through the dark so fast in a pair of princess pajamas. As soon as I got in the house, I locked the door. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. Then, I thought, “This is utterly ridiculous. I am an animal behaviorist and that was an animal.” I put my brain in gear, had a hunch that I immediately Googled to verify, and I was correct. For the first time in my life, I had gotten up close and personal with a flying squirrel.
Two days later, I went to the grocery store. As I walked down one aisle, I noticed a mother and her kindergarten aged son. He was wearing shorts, a Superman shirt, and a red cape. As I approached, he spread the cape, stood up on his toes, put his arms out to his sides and “flew” toward me. I gave an audible gasp and I could feel myself instantly starting to sweat. Observant little Smarty Pants said to his mother, “Look, she’s afraid of Superman.”
Despite being able to intellectualize the whole process, as a result of the flying squirrel, I had become jumpy about things flying toward me. If someone handed me a flying squirrel, I would be intrigued and delighted to meet it. The problem was at my initial introduction to this rodent, I didn’t know what it was, it was dark, and even though it was gracefully gliding, it moved toward my face with no warning.
As an animal behaviorist, I teach dog trainers about classical conditioning and how it relates to their dogs. Little did I expect that I would be the victim of classical conditioning. A fearful response from my late night meeting with a flying squirrel elicited physiological responses that generalized to a meeting with Superman in the soup aisle of my local grocery store.