I have never felt too strongly about squirrels. I remember once hearing the phrase “rats with tails” and thinking it seemed a little harsh, but beyond that, I never had a real opinion. Then something changed: I learned about the Squirrels of Instagram.
By my count, there are at least two dozen pet squirrels on Instagram, and in this world of domesticated cats and dogs, they represent a new frontier in cuteness while embodying a kind of forbidden love. To see these little guys twitching their tails and sniffing acorns while scrolling through your otherwise hum-drum Instagram feed is to covet their affection, and to picture what life would be like if owning squirrels as pets were normal instead of weird.
Before I discovered Smee on my timeline, a 12-year-old girl named Kerin discovered her in the backyard of her house in New England. “She was really skinny, so I just started feeding her a lot,” Kerin told me in a phone interview. “At first I fed her peanuts. Then I looked into her diet and I started feeding her all sorts of different nuts and fruit. I’d throw it to her, and then I started throwing it closer and closer until she ate out of my hand.”
It was thrilling for Kerin, as it would be for anyone. “She was really nervous at first,” she recalled. “She would kind of step forward and back and forward and back and then finally she took it. I was so excited. I started thinking, ‘What else can I get her to do?’ I was thinking, I wonder if I could get her to sit on my lap. And maybe I could get her to come when I call her name.”
Eventually Smee did the most amazing thing: She came into Kerin’s house.
“She started climbing up the screen door when I wasn’t opening the door quickly enough to feed her,” Kerin said. “So I thought, I wonder if I could get her to come inside. So she did and she loved it. She would walk all around the house, and she started burying nuts in the couch. Then she started to go upstairs and she would pancake herself on my bed and just relax. So I started letting her in a lot more.”
I figured out why her paws were red a little while ago. She's been eating pumpkins! She showed up again with paws even redder than before, but she also had an orange face and a little seed on her mouth. So, they must be irritating her paws. Nothing too bad. I'll get some squirrel safe irritation cream if it keeps happening
Since then, Smee has become so trusting of people that Kerin had to put a sign up in front of her house: Please beware of overly friendly squirrel. “She kept jumping on my neighbors,” Kerin explained. “I had to put up the sign so people wouldn’t think she had rabies or something and then take her to animal control!”
It was a demonstrably abnormal situation for a suburban elementary school kid to find herself in. But here’s a question for you: Should it be?
* * *
My first entrée into the Squirrels of Instagram—the thing that got me thinking seriously about whether owning pet squirrels should be more socially acceptable—was the biggest star in the squirrel space, a lean and majestic creature named Jill. “You don’t know about Jill the squirrel?” my friend asked me one day, before taking my phone out of my hand with incredulity and following the account on my behalf.
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The first thing I noticed was that Jill had hundreds of thousands of followers, and as I scrolled through some of the most recently posted images, I could see why. There was Jill perching on the slats of a venetian blind. There was Jill sitting up—“before bed,” according to the caption—and holding her little paw against her owner’s finger. There was Jill yawning. It was almost too much; looking at it made my heart fill up with longing.
This little love. #petsquirrel #squirrel #squirrels #squirrellove #squirrellife #squirrelsofig #squirrelsofinstagram #easterngreysquirrel #easterngraysquirrel #ilovesquirrels #petsofinstagram #jillthesquirrel #thisgirlisasquirrel #angel #littlelove #loveher #cuddle #holdthebaby #mamasgirl #mood #currentmood
I quickly followed more squirrel accounts. Nala lived in France and had a handsome orange stripe running down her velvety back. Veve had tiny ears with long sprouts of hair growing out of them. Illy lived with a family in a beach bungalow on the Florida coast.
Before these animals entered my life, I only knew squirrels as the ubiquitous but always-out-of-reach creatures who would never want anything to do with a guy like me. Insofar as I had ever considered the possibility of human-squirrel interaction, it was in the context of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pnin, in which the titular professor helps a squirrel take a drink from a water fountain, only to watch it run off immediately afterwards without so much as a nod of gratitude.
In retrospect, the only reason I did not want a pet squirrel was that it simply hadn’t occurred to me to want one. On some level this isn’t surprising: It’s against the law to own a pet squirrel in many states, and as charming as they seem from afar, it is also technically true that they are rodents. How many people keep squirrels as pets? Who knows. It’s safe to say, though, the number is not very high, since most people would sooner settle for a more traditional pet than risk coming across as crazy.
But looking at squirrels on Instagram awoke something in me. Suddenly these animals that I’d barely ever paid attention to seemed impossibly appealing. Their athletic pursuit of coziness impressed me. The intelligence in their black, almond-shaped eyes caused me to feel a pleasurable humility. With their tiny faces and their industrious paws, squirrels became, in my eyes, even more catlike than cats themselves—beguiling precisely because they were just this side of unattainable. As I savored my Instagram-enabled glimpses into the lives of squirrel-owners everywhere, a thought came into my head: Why can’t I have a squirrel? If all these other people can, why not me?
To find out if getting a squirrel was a good idea, I decided to call the owners of two very charming Instagram squirrels, Nugget and Seymour.
Nugget lives in Queens, New York. Her squirrel-mom, Alyssa, declined to share her last name because New York is one of the states where keeping squirrels as pets is illegal. Lest you judge Alyssa for breaking the law, though, keep in mind that she is basically a professional squirrel-rescuer: She works at an animal hospital, and whenever some good Samaritan finds a baby squirrel in the street and brings it in, she ends up taking it home and caring for it until it’s ready to go free. When Nugget came into Alyssa’s life she was already raising six other squirrels.
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Nugget turned out to be special. Due to a neurological disorder, she couldn’t really jump or run, and when she walked, her head tilted to the left. She wouldn’t have made it in the wild, Alyssa realized, so she decided to keep her.
Alyssa now knows all of Nugget’s routines and pleasures. Her food preferences are butternut squash, spinach, broccoli, blueberries, and grapes. She loves having her armpits tickled. She enjoys balloons.
“Her day starts at around 8am,” Alyssa said when I asked her about Nugget’s schedule. “She’ll wake up, do her normal stretches. I give her her food and she runs around, we’ll play. And then at around 2 or 3 p.m., she decides she’s ready for a nap and then she goes into her little cube and sleeps. And then around 8 or 9 she’ll get back up, she’ll stretch, and she’ll climb on top of her cage and sit on top of it for about an hour. She'll just sit there and relax for about an hour and then she goes back to her cube.”
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At the end of our conversation, I admitted to Alyssa that I can’t look at her Instagram for more than a few minutes without being overcome with the desire for a squirrel of my own. What did she think of this?
That’s when the cold water hit. It turned out the feeling of “why not me” was so common among Nugget’s fans on Instagram that Alyssa had been forced to write an open letter warning everyone that owning squirrels is no joke. Unless there’s something the matter with them, as there was in Nugget’s case, Alyssa wrote in her letter, chances were good that they would resist domestication in the long run.
“These are wild animals. They will become wild,” she told me. “If there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just instinct … And I don’t think people understand that—they think, ‘Oh you can just let it run around the house and do whatever it wants.’ If it’s a normal squirrel with normal instincts, you’re never gonna catch the squirrel, you’re never going to be able to clip its nails, it’s going to tear apart your entire house, and it will eventually bite you.”
This did not sound good. And while I knew from talking to Kerin that sometimes everything works out, the idea that most squirrels are ticking time bombs left me chastened. If the appeal of a pet squirrel lies in the improbable love it feels towards its owner, I thought to myself, watching that love transform into indifference would be almost unbearable. Haunted by this thought, I called a squirrel-owner by the name of Brad.
* * *
Brad had only had Seymour for a few months when I spoke to him, but he had quickly fallen completely, totally, head over heels in love with him. The squirrel slept in bed with him at night, and Brad would make videos of him waking up every day, which he posted on Instagram and YouTube. Hearing him talk about Seymour was like hearing the very essence of infatuation.
“At night, he has his own blanket that he’s inside of,” Brad told me, when I asked him to explain the sleeping arrangement. “And I just reach my arm across and keep my arm inside of the blanket so he can hold onto my hand all night like a pillow or a stuffed animal or something like that. He has a nest out in the patio where he takes naps during the day, but he prefers to sleep inside at night.”
Brad sounded amazed at his good fortune. “Squirrels are not supposed to really care about humans,” he said. “And yet Seymour is loyal, affectionate, and wants to be around me all the time.”
Yes, Brad said, he had thought about letting Seymour go free. He even took him to the park with no leash and encouraged him to build himself a nest in one of the trees there. The idea was that if Seymour wanted to stay in the wild, he could. But Brad hadn’t gotten that feeling from the squirrel, and he had been letting him roam free at the park for months now.
One night Seymour got scared, Brad told me. Some kids surprised him and he ran up into a tree. Then he wouldn’t come down all night. Brad sat in a nearby swing and waited for him until morning. Then, thank goodness, Seymour came down and Brad took him home.
It pains me to say this, and I’m sorry to Brad for doing so, but I wondered as I talked to him if it would always go that way. Then, sure enough, not long after our phone conversation, Seymour ran off during one of his park visits and was away from Brad for a whole week before the two of them found each other again. The harrowing experience of following Seymour’s account during that week made me wonder: What if Alyssa is right? What if it’s inevitable that one day, Seymour will strike out on his own? What would Brad do with the blanket Seymour sleeps in, if Seymour were to ever decide to start sleeping somewhere else?
To imagine it makes me think of the heartbroken Professor Pnin, standing sadly by the water fountain after the animal he helped and hoped to connect with has left him by himself. With that, I become viscerally certain that a pet squirrel is not in my destiny—that while Squirrel Instagram makes the dream look possible, the truth is that loving a squirrel like Seymour, or Nugget, or Smee, is just too big of a risk for me to take.
Those who are brave enough to accept that risk, who have what it takes to win a squirrel’s trust and keep it, are lucky. I thank them for sharing with the rest of us, even if it isn’t very normal.
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