On the ground at Arlington National Cemetery, a sciurus niger vulpinus may scurry to a tree trunk while a didelphis virginiana decides to take a mid-day nap in the vicinity of the National Amphitheatre. Below all the commotion, a group of procyon lotors investigate a new escape route in a Northern Virginia storm sewer.
The aforementioned squirrels, possums and raccoons habitually explore parts of the 624-acre cemetery or call it home, but there is a fine line of co-existence that is occasionally crossed with cemetery tourists or ANC staff.
The animals occasionally found roaming the cemetery hills and valleys during an early-morning walk are diverse. From the leftover pungent odors of the North American skunk [mephitis mephitis] to the mobile white-tailed deer [odocoileus virginianus], veteran ANC maintenance staffer Ed Tucker has seen instances or heard many stories about animal hiding places and visual encounters with wildlife. In 2011, he even fielded unconfirmed reports of a bobcat between the cemetery walls.
“I’ve been here since 1999, 12 years, and the most commonly seen [animals] are deer, quite a few raccoons, fox, and as far as aviary types, we’ve had eagles, falcons and hawks,” Tucker began as he rattled off a long list of creatures which, roam or fly over the cemetery. “Back on the ground, we have possum running around and of course, it seems like we have 10 gazillion squirrels and your typical field mice and rats.”
Tucker also mentioned that the black snake population is bountiful as well as a high fox count. The local fox population is quite adept at hole-digging, which is one of the problems the cemetery maintenance staff tussles with on a daily basis.
Then there is the raccoon population – the night-time scrounger is quiet imaginative in finding sleeping quarters and a meal.
“The raccoons like to live in the hollow trunks of trees,” Tucker pointed out. “They’ve been known to do damage up by the Kennedy grave site. They like to dig around the grave site because there are grubs and insects there they like to eat. We’ve had to trap them there and move them to another part of the cemetery.”
Tucker emphasizes that humane traps are used to capture any ANC animal, yet an intelligent raccoon can be very elusive.
“The raccoons have discovered we have a subterranean tunnel system in the form of the storm water sewers, and many of those sewers have ledges in them and the raccoons tend to nest on ledges,” Tucker said. “They live in the storm sewers and run through the cemetery’s storm water drains and they are never exposed to light.”
The ANC maintenance staff has become experts on which animals cause certain landscaping damage. The biggest unseen culprits are deer who jump the cemetery walls at night and help themselves to floral arrangements or planted flowers. Tucker noted that damage done by munching deer herds has in the past caused significant damage to ANC greenery.
“The biggest issue with them, at this time and into the summer, is that they love the cut flowers,” Tucker said. “They are notorious for eating the flowers off rose [bushes] and carnations. All they want is the flower head. That’s one way we identify [the types of animals] in the cemetery.
“Fortunately, they [deer] are basically nocturnal, so we don’t have to deal with them too often in the daytime,” Tucker added. “There are times when they are in the cemetery, and we have a couple wooded areas they retreat to. They also tend to jump the fence and head down by the [Potomac] River.”
On certain occasions, wild animals shake off their shyness and inhabit popular common areas. During the week of Easter, a notorious cemetery visitor decided to nap at the Memorial Amphitheater.
“We just had an issue with a possum that decided it liked one of the window wells up at the amphitheater,” Tucker explained. “It was in behind the grill work, and that’s where it decided to sleep for the day. Of course, it attracted attention because everybody could see the possum. We actually woke it up and scooted it toward the wooded area.”
In the skies above ANC and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, hawks and falcons can commonly be seen in treetops and even perched on top of Brucker Hall scanning cemetery sections for squirrels and rodents. Tucker made note that eagles have been locally sighted, but the majestic national bird is just passing through the nation’s capital.
“The eagles that we’ve seen have just been moving through [the area]. We have some hawks that reside here in some of the higher sections like section four,” said Tucker.