A squirrel that apparently fell into an Atlanta house through a chimney and was desperate to get out caused at least $15,000 in destruction over the Christmas holidays, the homeowners said.
To make it worse, the couple's insurance company said it is not responsible to cover the cost of the damage.
First-time homeowners Kari and Dustin Drees and their 9-month-old daughter moved last month into their house in the upscale Buckhead district of Atlanta, and soon after went on vacation to California.
When the Dreeses returned home on Jan. 1, they found their house in total shambles: Wood chippings, chimney soot and waste from a small animal all over; scratched floors; chewed-up baseboards, window and door frames; and a damaged couch.
"When I opened the door, I saw a ton of wood chips on the ground, so I initially thought someone had broken in and had broken through the door," Dustin Drees told NBC News on Wednesday.
"We initially thought we had been robbed, but then we started looking around. The TV was still there. A gift card that was left out was still there. Nothing was taken. Maybe someone had broken in and our stuff wasn't interesting to them?"
Of the 13 windows in the house, frames around 10 of them were severely damaged, "like someone took a chisel to them," said Dustin Drees, 30.
They soon figured the likely culprit was a squirrel which left its tiny paw prints all over the house. The Dreeses believe the rodent got in through the chimney and then panicked when it couldn't find a way out.
The tiny suspect eventually came out of hiding, jumping out of the couch and trying to escape through the chimney. A pest control service captured the squirrel and took it away.
The couple had hints something was wrong while they were away when their security system went off multiple times. But each time, the security service said its responding officers found no signs of a break-in. Dustin Drees said he also had family friends drop by the house, but they too found no evidence of forced entry.
Once they were back and faced with the damage, the homeowners took solace that their insurer would surely come through to cover the five-digit damage.
"We're stressed at first, but we were like, 'This is why you have homeowner's insurance. It's in situations like this.' ... and so we weren't too stressed," Kari Drees told NBC Atlanta affiliate WXIA.
A spokesman for their insurer, Mercury Insurance, told NBC News in a statement on Wednesday that it received the Drees' claim but has ruled the couple is not covered for squirrel damage.
"Unfortunately, damage done to a property by birds, vermin, rodents and insects is not covered. This is explicitly stated in the contract, and all insurance companies we know of have similar exclusions," according to a Mercury Insurance statement.
The company said it would pay for the family to spend two weeks at a hotel "while their home is professionally cleaned," but not for the cleaning or any repairs.
"The stress and the overwhelmingness started to settle in when we found out our claim was denied all due to legal jargon and the definition of a rodent and a vermin," said Kari Drees, 27.
Dustin Drees said he understands the insurers' point of view — that birds, vermin, rodents and insects are issues that homeowners should be able to address in basic maintenance. But the couple argues that it is not reasonable to believe they should be on the hook for a chimney-invading squirrel.
"It seems like bad faith. It's just not something you think about," a squirrel entering through the fireplace, Dustin Drees said.