There is something menacing in Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood.
It's a band of culprits that scares children. Steals from seniors. Comes at you over nothing more than a pizza crust.
Call it: The Reign of Squirrels.
But seriously. Things have apparently gotten so bad at Anderson Park near Hyde Park Village — a gorgeous, oak-shaded city park of tall iron gates, a fountain guarded by stone lions and a steady stream of romping kids — the city needed help.
They needed Smitty.
Just this week, Bob "Smitty" Smith of Smitty's Trapping Co. — We do everything except alligators!, his ad says — heard tell of one of the furry gray felons brazenly snatching a PB&J from a grandma.
But please, do not blame The Squirrels of Anderson Park. Apparently they have picked up this bad behavior from us, the well-meaning humans who for years stuffed them full of Doritos and danish, lunchbox bananas and babies' Cheerios.
We fed them. We left scraps.
And they liked it.
"Squirrels are smart little critters," reports Smith, who also traps opossums, raccoons, lately coyotes, and once, a 2-foot python. "This is all learned behavior. People have just been feeding them so much for so long, they see people take food out of their bags and think, 'Hey, I'll just go take it myself.' "
The Squirrels of Anderson Park have foraged in lunch sacks. The parks department has reports of them jumping on actual children, and there's nothing funny about that.
So for the first time, the city is paying a trapper $475 to catch up to 14 squirrels using live-traps over seven days. They are to be taken to some private property with enough acreage, described by Smith as "open forest" with plenty for squirrels to forage.
Me, I do not doubt scary squirrel stories, even if I don't blame the squirrels.
On nearby Davis Islands — home to Mayor Bob Buckhorn and New York Yankee Derek Jeter — squirrels used to Little League hot dogs and Slim Jims will stand in your path and stare you down. (No weapon is seen, though it would not surprise you.)
And funny, but my less-affluent neighborhood squirrels act pretty much like squirrels. Maybe we just don't feed them as much.
When I bring up the situation to the mayor, he is quick to recall the infamous squirrel who chewed through a power line and kicked off a series of events that left more than half a million locals on a boil-water notice. Then the mayor said something about "squirrel stew."
I checked in on Anderson Park on Friday. Early on Smith's first morning — prime acorn time for squirrels — apparently they weren't up. Smith counted up to 50 at the park at one point, so maybe they slept in and waited for the lunch crowd.
"There's squirrels running around with, like, half a hoagie roll," he says.
He looked for the ones that "just come running," he said. By Friday he had eight.
Yes, the city fully expects more squirrels to come — squirrel "infill," as parks director Greg Bayor put it. But with presumably the most aggressive ones moved, the city will put up squirrel feeders intending to keep the rest happy, and they will try, try to educate parkgoers against feeding them, even if they are cute.
Because the truth about the The Reign of Squirrels is this: It's not them. It's us.