One of the most popular YouTube videos of 2020 was from former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Mark Rober who attempted to build a squirrel-proof obstacle course. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t, so a year later he’s trying again, and this time taking inspiration from movies like Mission Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven with laser rooms, trap doors, and rooftop mazes.
Last year’s experiment was inspired by Rober’s efforts to pursue bird watching as a way to endure long hours spent at home during the pandemic lockdowns, but he soon discovered that no matter how complicated a bird feeder he installed, the local squirrel population had no problem circumventing their supposed “squirrel-proof” countermeasures. And with a history of tackling problems like porch pirates using extreme engineering, Rober figured his background in designing components for Mars rovers would be more than enough to design obstacles that would prevent squirrels from stealing his nuts.
Rober’s previous squirrel obstacle course took inspiration from TV shows like American Ninja Warrior, but this time he turned to some of the most famous capers Hollywood has ever brought to the big screen. Not only would squirrels have to navigate a long course and restart from the beginning every time they failed, but they’d also have to face obstacles like rooms filled with simulated laser tripwires, a helicopter that travels down a zip line, a rooftop maze designed to emulate a building’s ventilation system, and even a room with a high-ceiling that can only be escaped using a ladder that lowers when entering a one-button password on a tiny computer. The finale is a wooden safe known as “Fort Knuts” filled with walnuts protected with a spinning locking mechanism.
It took Rober and an accomplice about two months to design and build the course which appears to take up most of his backyard, but it took a team of four squirrels, including internet favourite ‘Phat Gus’, much less than that to circumvent every challenge and safeguard he’d put in place. The moral of the story? When battling squirrels, the only way to win is to put up a few cameras and share a YouTube video that racks up over 72.5 million views.