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Consider the Squirrel

Over 150 years ago, squirrels were imported from the countryside as a way to beautify our urban parks. They taught us important lessons about charity and compassion. And then we turned on them.
(Photo: Gerald Marella/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Gerald Marella/Shutterstock)

About a decade ago I watched a squirrel do something amazing. Tired of these creatures storming my backyard bird feeder, I situated a cylinder of feed far from overhanging tree limbs and atop a six-foot pole. Take that squirrels! Two days of twitchy squirrel confusion ensued. The critters circled and touched the pole but, by all appearances, seemed stymied from raiding their customary trough. I was pleased.

On day three, though, one clever ball of fur took sap from a nearby tree, lined the pole with it, and scampered his way upward to yet another smorgasbord on my tab. Foiled again!

I still tell this story as an example of rare squirrel ingenuity. But, as an article in the most recent Journal of American History explains, I shouldn’t be that surprised. Turns out squirrels have been honing impressive survivalist techniques for over 150 years. And they’ve been doing so, moreover, in regions not unlike my urban yard.

The common impulse to protect squirrels led many urbanites to condemn natural squirrel predators as animals who "poisoned the atmosphere of trust on which a harmonious community depended."

Before 1840 there were no squirrels in urban settings, unless the little guys were there as someone’s pet. But by 1870, just one human generation later, they were ubiquitous. The reason may surprise you: they were purposely imported from the countryside as a way “to beautify and enliven the urban landscape,” according to the article’s author, Etienne Benson, a historian of science, technology, and the environment who teaches in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. If you’ve ever spent time in the Boston Common, the New Haven green, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or even Central Park, little did you know that you were witnessing the birthplace of the urban gray squirrel.

In rural settings squirrels were conventionally treated as agricultural pests. A newspaper report on “an Arkansas hunt” noted how 20 woodsmen “produced the enormous number of fourteen thousand scalps” from these “varmints.”

But the situation in the city led to an altogether different characterization of the squirrel.

Rather than fan out across expanding urban landscapes, squirrel populations initially remained concentrated in parks, places that served them well as “isolated refuges ... in the middle of an urban desert,” according to Benson. Despite the threat posed by dogs, squirrels assumed a supplicating demeanor that ingratiated them to park residents who deemed them charming imports from a wilder clime. Park-goers routinely fed, housed, and, for the most part, adored the small mammals as personable critters. No one looked askance at such generosity (unlike we do today at, say, people who feed the pigeons).

Squirrels eventually became naturalized members of the community, providing urban denizens something rather unexpected: an opportunity for moral self-improvement. Indeed, a “readiness to trust humans” as well as an “ability to flourish in the heart of the city” predisposed squirrels to become the ideal non-human recipients of human charity. Citizens who nurtured squirrels were seen to foster an ethic of compassion for the plight of the weak, in this case a cute mammal with a fluffy tail that liked to beg. A lot of squirrels, in turn, became very fat on generous peanut subsidies (in fact, some citizens seriously worried that peanuts were bad for the squirrels’ coats).

“Gray squirrels,” writes Benson, “helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak.” Those who lashed out at these innocent creatures—New Yorkers noted that Italian immigrant laborers were frequently killing and eating squirrels—were castigated as barbarians. Boys who sought cheap thrills by pelting squirrels with stones were identified by social reformers as candidates for re-education from “missionary squirrels,” little creatures who would supposedly help these mean boys temper their tendency to torture.

The common impulse to protect squirrels even led many urbanites to condemn natural squirrel predators as animals who, in Benson’s terms, “poisoned the atmosphere of trust on which a harmonious community depended.” Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but not in downtown Boston.

Today, for better or worse, these sentiments have drastically diminished. As an “ecological vision of human-animal relationships” begins to shape our view of squirrels, urban- and suburbanites alike have started, in the name of environmentalism, to condemn these furry aliens as “invasive”—that is, as indicative of nature out of balance. One is just as likely to hear proposals to introduce natural predators such as falcons and hawks as calls to treat squirrels with kindness.

A little farther out on the periphery of viable solutions are proposals to consume the poor critters. One member of the online group Homesteading Today suggests that we should trap urban squirrels, fatten them with healthy food, and detoxify them. “Then,” he explains, “it would be eatin’ time!” If the squirrels’ urban history is any indication, chances are good that they’ll not go gently.