In the 1989 movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) leads his family into the woods somewhat near their Chicago home to find a Christmas tree. After a very long walk to find the perfect tree, they finally pick one. And then, things go wrong: Clark realizes that he didn’t bring any tools with him. They’re effectively trespassers on someone else’s property, so there’s no one around to help; further, they’re so far away from their car (and very cold), a return trip seems like a bad idea. So the Griswolds opt for a less-bad idea (maybe?) — instead of turning around, they uproot the tree and take it with them. It’s the start of a comedy of errors; over the course of the film, the Griswolds’ errors result in a blackout, a couple of fires, an electrocuted cat, and a call to the SWAT team.
But it could have been worse. The Griswolds could have lived in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Unversity of Nebraska-Lincoln is home to the Maxwell Arboretum, a five-acre expanse that contains a lot of trees, all of which are well cared for. Many of those trees are evergreens, and when Christmastime comes around, the young evergreens make for good Christmas trees. But of course, the Maxwell Arboretum isn’t in the business of cutting down young trees and selling them for that use — if anything, the opposite is true. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to play by the Arboretum’s rules, or to act consistently with the spirit of the season. As Jeff Culbertson, a landscape manager at the University, explained to the Daily Nebraskan in 2003, “young evergreens with a typical Christmas tree shape sometimes are cut down and stolen by people who put the trees in their homes for the holiday.”
The Arboretum doesn’t want that to happen. So how do you stop it? Two words: fox pee. Per the Associated Press, each year, around Thanksgiving, “at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, evergreens are sprayed with a fox urine mixture and tagged with a warning to discourage tree thieves.” More specifically, per the Daily Nebraskan, it’s a “mixture of fox urine, glycerin, water and dye,” but the key ingredient is the first one. Fox urine doesn’t hurt the trees — in the wild, foxes go on trees all the time, after all — but it isn’t something you want in your house. Why? Because it smells awful. Outdoors, the odor is no big deal — the cold temperatures and the fantastic airflow prevent it from becoming all that noticeable. But take that same tree-with-pee inside your warm house, and watch out: pr Culbertson, “it’s as rancid as if you had cat urine all over your house. The smell is eye-watering.”
No one wants that to happen, so the University doesn’t do this in secret. The pee-spreading measures are announced on the radio, in the campus newspaper, and on fliers around campus and the Arboretum. And by and large, the tactic works. A parks official, Jerry Shorney, told the Daily Nebraskan that since this effort to outfox tree thieves began, the number of trees taken has dropped dramatically, from 15 to 20 per year down to only one or two. And other areas have followed suit with similar countermeasures. In 2006, the AP reported (in the above-linked article) that “tree poaching was once a problem at Washington State University, which has more than 150 evergreen, spruce and fir trees on campus” but it “all but stopped after groundskeepers began to spray the campus trees with the oily, odorous liquid produced by skunks.” In 2017, the New York Daily News reported that the University of Iowa employs a mix of fox urine and skunk stank to deter tree bandits, with similar results: before the spraying, a half-dozen or more trees went missing each year, but after, that number fell to almost zero, with only three or four trees stolen over a 27-year period.
So if you are in the market for a Christmas tree, here’s a tip: buy one — or be prepared to invest in some nose plugs.
From the Archives: Atlanta’s Fight to Separate Elevators and Restrooms: No foxes, but a similar problem.