Those Squirrely Little Freeloaders: How America Went Nuts For Squirrels

In like a lion, out like a lamb: this month, we’re bringing you posts all about animal life and history. Welcome to March of the Wild.

Today’s our youngest Sistorian Corinne’s birthday, and since it’s also March of the Wild, I really can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to talk about her favorite subject: the common park squirrel. Corinne’s main grievance with these creatures is that they’re just weird, and I honestly have to agree. Where did they come from? Why do they stare at you? Have you ever seen one interact with another animal? Why are they so ubiquitous? Where do they go when they die, besides the shoulder of the highway? What in the world compels the tourists in the Boston Common to feed them with their bare hands?!

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Well, we can’t answer all of those questions, but we can make some headway on the first one, thanks to Etienne Benson, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who really worked his bushy little tail off digging into the origin story of squirrels.

There’s a reason “squirrelly” has come to describe someone who’s restless, nervous, unpredictable. Those little buggers always seem to look like they’re sneaking around, as if they shouldn’t be hanging out in our parks and backyards. That’s because they shouldn’t. They were scooped up from the wild and brought here en masse, all because some Progressive-era men got it in their heads that they were cute and cuddly forest creatures whose fate in life was to be looked at by tourists in parks.

Before the mid-1800s, you might see a squirrel in America about as often as you saw a fox or a snake. In other words, they were forest creatures, minding their own business, living away from humans, occasionally hunted for lunch meat (hey, at least it wasn’t a hippo). When they were brought into human contact, like if someone had one as a pet – side-eyeing you, Ben Franklin and Warren G. Harding – people went kind of nuts about it.*

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Around this time, city planners across America were bent on figuring out what kinds of environments would produce the *best* kinds of humans, the most even-keeled, moral, wise and intelligent beings for society. It was a question that would inevitably lead to some unfortunate and incorrect conclusions about race, gender and poverty; the construction of inequitable public systems; and the infestation of squirrels in our parks.

These city planners and environmentalists got alllllll hopped up on the idea that exposure to nature would soften man, make him benevolent and kind and on time for work. It was the dirty, crowded cities that led to laziness and vice, they decided, and if people could relax in nature in the heart of the city, they would be happier, saner people. (They got like… half of this kind of right). So they built the parks. And then, to make the parks authentically woodsy spaces, they brought in the squirrels.

Central Park led the way starting in 1877, turning a small starter set into over 1,500 squirrels in six years. Boston, D.C. and other cities followed. They planted nut-bearing trees in the parks to feed the squirrels, humans loved seeing their little furry friends chomping on nuts and holding things in their cute, tiny hands, and everything was hunky-dory.

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For a while.

Then, humans started getting too comfortable with the squirrels, and more problematically, feeding them. The “welfare police” came out in full force with their picket signs that the squirrels would become dependent, lazy and entitled as a result of all this human attention and feeding. What’s their incentive to work for those nuts now, you know? Ask for a hand up, not a hand out!

Well, like most severe austerity measures, this removal of the social safety net for squirrels had repercussions. Instead of learning the value of a hard earned dollar, er, nut, or pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, some squirrels rebelled. In 1987, a squirrel shut down the stock market for 82 minutes by stepping on a power line. It happened again in 1994. And one of them even was spotted at an Occupy Wall Street protest. Who knows how many more are part of some invisible #resistance we’ve yet to learn about? It’s probably run out of that liberal hellscape Boston, where the squirrels are fat and happy, hand-fed by European tourists from socialist countries.

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Safe to say, although their presence in our parks is relatively new, squirrels are here to stay. If you see them, please don’t feed them – not because they’ll become wards of the state, but because it just really, really squicks me out. However, if you see Corinne today, make sure to wish her a happy birthday. Or just make some muffled squeaks. She’ll get the memo.

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Even Googling these images is really giving me the weirds.

*President Harding and President Truman both allegedly had a pet squirrel named Pete that followed them around the White House grounds and nearby Lafayette Park. They were presidents 25 years apart. Could it be the same Pete? Wouldn’t it be? What’s the likelihood of two squirrels named Pete getting a security clearance? We don’t know how long these creatures live. Well, someone probably does. But have you ever seen an old squirrel???!!! (They don’t live as long as groundhogs, of course).

Sources

https://www.citylab.com/environment/2013/12/how-cities-almost-killed-common-squirrel/7908/

http://nymag.com/news/features/squirrels-2014-2/

https://gizmodo.com/the-fascinating-story-of-why-u-s-parks-are-full-of-squ-1478182563

Benson, Etienne. (2013). The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States. Journal of American History. 100. 691-710. 10.1093/jahist/jat353.

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