John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
At last, historians have charted the great "squirrel experiments" of the 1800s, which saved the humble creature from urban extinction.
July 4, 1856: Bystanders gather under a tree in New York's Central Park. Their excitement attracts more people until the crowd numbers in the hundreds. Somebody props a ladder against the trunk. Another grabs a 20-foot-long pole and jabs it into the leaves.
Did the circus lose a fez-wearing monkey? Hardly anything so ordinary! It was a gray squirrel, which had escaped from a cage in an apartment building and scurried across traffic to take refuge in the park.
The amount of attention New Yorkers lavished on that single nut-chewing furball might seem insane by today's standards. But a century and a half ago, a squirrel in the city was as remarkable as a carriage pulled by pachyderms. That fact was made clear in an article The New York Times ran about the incident, titled “An Unusual Visitor.” A police officer eventually had to disperse the agitated crowd, the paper noted, although not before a young man tried to grab the squirrel and "released him immediately, as the animal's teeth proved sharper than he had bargained for."
Nowadays, to walk through Central Park is to be surrounded by squirrels. But New York's vibrant and chirruping squirrel community belies how close to extinction the group once came. The urban squirrel's brush with doom has finally received a proper telling, however, from University of Pennsylvania scholar and die-hard squirrel enthusiast Etienne Benson. According to Benson's exhaustive review of historical documents, the Eastern gray squirrel was virtually missing from cities in the 1800s, and only came back thanks to the coordinated efforts of cities looking to beautify their parkland.
"It's easy for us to assume [squirrels] were always there or there by accident," says Benson, who's 37. "But there are a lot of things in the environment that we think are natural, because we have forgotten their history."
Back in the 1700s, America was the squirrel's oyster. They roamed the earth in huge herds, like legions of tiny buffalo, eating everything in sight. (One alarmist rumor alleged they even gnawed on tombstones for the inherent calcium.) The movements were so massive that John James Audubon considered the animals a new species – Sciurus migratorius, or "migrating squirrel" – although in truth they were the same kind of grays that gambol in trees today.
To see a squirrel herd was to stand in awe of a commanding natural force. Here's one traveler's account from 1824, dug up by Berkeley professor Lucia Jacobs:
I could scarcely believe my eyes, when I saw the immense number of these animals.... I found that this host of squirrels had in many places destroyed the whole crop, and that the little fellows were sometimes seen, three or four upon a stalk, fighting for the ear. One party of hunters, in the course of a week, killed upwards of 19,000. In most places, however, there were such multitudes of them, that the inhabitants quite despaired of being able to ride themselves of this plague.
If there's one thing that humans are good at, though, it's ridding the world of things. Luck began to sour for the squirrels in the early 1800s, when the growth of cities and the resulting deforestation ruined much of their natural habitat. The ones that weren't left homeless were blasted off of branches by urban hunters in search of a pelt or a hot meal – recipe books at the time abounded with squirrels all broiled, fried, roasted, fricasseed, and swimming in an oyster-and-cream "Kentucky Burgoo" that was the talk of the town on Derby Day.
And so cities arrived at the point when a sighting of a lone squirrel could paralyze pedestrian traffic. "The idea that dozens of people would gather to see a squirrel says something about how unusual they were," says Benson.
So what's to account for the squirrel's miraculous rebound? Benson believes it began when the greening movement picked up steam in the middle and late 1800s. Enlightened city planners professed an aversion to endless warrens of brick and iron. Such artificial vistas, totally stripped of nature, were thought to have a corrosive effect on the psyche.
"There was a lot of concern over how workers crowded in cities never had a chance to see nature, and somehow that contributed to bad habits," he says. "Like, instead of going for a walk in the countryside, they'd go to a bar and get drunk."
Pockets of pastoral landscape began popping up to remedy these perceived social ills, thanks to visionaries like Frederick Law Olmsted. But something was still missing: wildlife. To give a full sense of walking in the countryside, you needed to have living animals.
So cities were faced with a dilemma. They wanted squirrels back inside their borders, but could not find any in the vicinity. Their answer was to turn to the marketplace for private dealers. Boston sourced its squirrels from Vermont, for instance, and the Smithsonian decided to populate D.C. with a black variety from Ontario.
In 1847, Philadelphia became the first city to re-release squirrels into the public realm, kicking off what Benson has deemed America's great "squirrel experiments." Boston soon followed, setting loose a bevy of rodents in the famous Great Elm on Boston Common. Historical records note that these were some extremely pampered animals: The elm was almost like a zoo exhibit, with tenders providing the critters with shelter and tasty treats.
Squirrel fever spread throughout the land, from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, transmitted via urban planners trying to emulate that shining beacon of squirrel liberation, Philly. They said, "Hey, if you've ever been to Philadelphia you know they just reintroduced the squirrel," says Benson. "Sounds like a lot of fun. We should do it here, too."
Harvard Lampoon. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives)
The way people interacted with their new four-legged neighbors was, in today's view, quite strange. Park managers encouraged them to feed the animals, for instance, a no-no in 2013.
"One of the funniest things I've found was the idea that having squirrels in the city was a way of teaching young boys the value of compassion or of charity," says Benson. "There was a lot of fear about boys torturing small animals or taking advantage of the vulnerable and weak. Ernest Thompson Seton, the co-founder of the Boy Scouts, published an article in Boys' Life encouraging people to introduce 'missionary squirrels' in the cities, to show young boys it's more fun to feed them than to torture or hunt them."
Gradually, the squirrel population in urban centers found its footing. That's not to say there weren't bumps along the way. Squirrels went through a rough patch in the 1870s when people started killing them again, believing they were bothering birds. And although the squirrels of Central Park numbered 1,500 in the 1880s, their numbers were occasionally thinned during city-managed culls. One hunting party took out hundreds of the creatures in the park during a single morning, with shotguns.
By the turn of the century, squirrels were numerous enough that the public once again had a stark change of opinion. Tales of squirrels biting people and colonizing attics signaled that the honeymoon was over. They morphed into roughly what they are today, innocuous at best, dirty and aggressive at worst. Benson picked up a clue to America's fading enchantment with its bushy-tailed buddies in the diary of a Cambridge ornithologist, who logged the interactions he had with squirrels over the course of a decade.
The narrative starts with the fellow describing peaceful days in the 1890s that he spent feeding the animals. "Then I found a journal entry around 1905 that said for the first time in 10 years, one of the squirrels decided to dig up his garden," he says. "It's like, everything is fine for nine years, and then in year ten one squirrel gets it in its head to dig up the flowers."