Squirrels Were Brought to Cities to Tame Wild Boys

Slate’s animal blog.
Jan. 21 2014 2:24 PM

Missionary Squirrels: The Misguided Campaign to Tame Wild Boys

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Once squirrels became common in cities, they acquired a reputation as lazy beggars.

Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images

I shot a gray squirrel once, when I was 12. It took me a week of waiting in the still of the woods before the bushy creature finally frolicked down a tree and into my sights. Afterward, my dad showed me how to flay its skin, salt the pelt, and sauté what little meat the carcass yielded. It was the first animal I ever successfully hunted. And it tasted like dirt—old, chewy dirt.

Obviously, this is not the relationship most Americans share with squirrels. From Maine and Minnesota on down to Texas, the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is better known as a fearless beggar, common to city parks, golf courses, and college campuses. They’re wild animals, technically, but that doesn’t stop us from offering them peanuts and breadcrumbs without the slightest fear of attack. Hunting urban squirrels seems like it would require little more than a cardboard box, a stick, and a length of twine.

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But here’s the weird thing. Unlike rats, raccoons, coyotes, and every other animal that’s learned that living near humans means easy food, most squirrels did not move to the city for handouts. In fact, prior to the early 1800s, almost no gray squirrels scampered through any major American cities. At the same time, the countryside was so inundated with the buggers that many states placed bounties on their heads. Literally. In Tennessee, for instance, the government encouraged adult males to pay some of their taxes in squirrel scalps.  

If squirrels were such a pest that rural folk were killing them on sight, you’d think great numbers of the animals would have found their way to the cities. Since they didn’t, how on earth did gray squirrels come to lord over every patch of manicured nature in the East?

Because we put them there—for moral reasons.

Basically, gray squirrels owe their prevalence to two emerging ideas of the early 19th century. The first notion is that nature is inherently good for people, and where it does not exist naturally, it should be cultivated in the form of gardens, parks, and other open spaces. Squirrels were thought to be an obvious accent to such places, for what good is the wood without its denizens?

The second accepted truth was that most young boys were total jerks, but that forcing the little brats to be nice to animals could soften those hard edges. Etienne Benson explains how those ideas collided in December’s issue of The Journal of American History. He writes, “[S]quirrels offered an opportunity to teach young boys the value of compassion and kindness in the public sphere, just as domestic pets did in the home.”

In other words, each time a squirrel sidled up to a child, the latter had to make a choice between good and evil. He could choose to toss the little fluff ball a bit of cracker. Or he could pick up a projectile and bash its brains in.

On this premise, gray squirrels were welcomed into New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., and Chicago. Later, grays would be introduced to Washington state, Oregon, and California. In fact, the idea was so popular, one of the founding members of the Boy Scouts of America proposed sending “missionary squirrels” all over the world “to cure boys of their tendency toward cruelty.”

Luckily, the idea that foreign countries would willfully import an invasive species on the premise that it would teach their boys to be better men was roundly mocked and rejected. Oh wait, no it wasn’t.

Australia, Italy, South Africa, and the United Kingdom all participated in the great one-way gray squirrel exchange program. Some squirrel colonies were started by foreigners who simply thought grays were cute and would look nice in their backyards. (I’m not sure which motive is worse.) The gray squirrel hit England particularly hard, where it is still contributing to the decline of the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) to this day. Because grays are bigger and bolder, the reds tend to evacuate areas where territories overlap. Researchers have also discovered that grays carry and pass a deadly parapoxvirus to the reds.

But out of all this, what’s most interesting to me is the way the perception of gray squirrels seems to have morphed over the years. Benson told me that grays used to enjoy a reputation as creatures of diligence and foresight. Whereas other animals hibernate, migrate, or spend their winters eking out a living on whatever foodstuffs they can find, squirrels are famous for gathering and storing supplies for the coming harshness. But then, around the beginning of the 20th century, all of that started to change.

“All of a sudden, the gray squirrel had become this quintessential urban creature,” said Benson. “People started to associate them with begging and laziness.”

This, friends, is high irony. In its natural environment, the gray squirrel provides for itself like a champ. It eats everything from fruits and veggies to bugs and baby birds. (Yeah, you read that right.)

And obviously, there are the nuts. Gray squirrels gather and store many varieties of nuts and seeds, but they’re also very choosey. They know acorns from white oak trees will germinate in the fall if buried underground, so they either eat them right away or bite off the acorn’s embryo to prevent it from sprouting after storage. (Germinated acorns are less nutritional, FYI.) But acorns from the red oak tree wait until spring to germinate, so squirrels are more likely to stockpile this variety. If spring comes and they haven’t eaten the red oak stash, research has shown the squirrels will dig the acorns up, nip off the embryo, and re-bury them for future use.

But guess what doesn’t keep very well over the winter? Peanuts! Not only that, peanuts lack many of the nutrients squirrels require, and their soft shells do nothing to wear down the rodents’ ever-growing incisors. And yet Benson found peanuts were often the food of choice for university staff, city planners, and concerned citizens trying to do the squirrels a solid. In Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, volunteers have been known to lay out upwards of 75 pounds of peanuts per week, contributing to “one of the densest gray squirrel populations ever recorded.”

In honor of Squirrel Appreciation Day—because that’s a thing, and it’s today—I’d ask that all you urban squirrel haters cut the grays a break. The next time one makes a run at your sandwich, try to remember that the squirrels didn’t ask for any of this. They’re just a bunch of wild animals doing the best with what we gave them. 

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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