[In honor of "Squirrel Appreciation Day" -- today, Jan. 21 -- we're re-posting this fascinating post.]
Most people think of squirrels as just another everyday feature of American parks. But, according to a new paper published in the Journal of American History, this wasn't always so. Etienne Benson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that it wasn't until the first half of the 19th century that you could see a squirrel in a park in the U.S. -- and even then, they were likely to be pets.
In most cases such pets had been taken from nests while young, and many were probably abandoned, killed, or had managed to escape after they matured. Nonetheless, they provided opportunities for urban Americans to form opinions about the habits and character of squirrels that complemented and sometimes contradicted those opinions formed in the context of hunting and farming.
Then, in the 1840s and 1860s, Boston and New Haven, Connecticut began the first introductions of squirrels into urban parks were begun. The lucky pioneers were even provided with nesting boxes and food (luxuries that today's squirrels can usually only dream of). Some of the squirrels even got so fat that they fell out of trees. The animals were seen as a great boon to the parks, Benson writes:
The gray squirrel was seen as a particularly desirable park resident, since it was understood to be, as the naturalist John Burroughs would later write, an "elegant creature, so cleanly in its habits, so graceful in its carriage, so nimble and daring in its movements," and one that "excites feelings of admiration akin to those awakened by the birds and the fairer forms of nature."
New York spurred a second wave of squirrel introductions, mainly thanks to a small group planted in Central Park in 1877 that soon grew to 1,500 animals -- leading to sanctioned squirrel hunts by eager urbanites. Other populations around the country, like those at at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and at Harvard Yard, began to grow too. Their closeness to humans helped bring "nature" closer to everyday life, Gizmodo points out.
Feeding the squirrels became a past time during these years, and was eventually seen by naturalists and conservationists as a way to help humans learn how to better treat animals. It wasn't just confined to parks at this point, either. There are many accounts from the late 19th century of people in the suburbs feeding squirrels. Ernest Thompson Seton, who helped found the Boy Scouts, even wanted to use feeding squirrels as a way "to cure boys of their tendency toward cruelty."
who documented a neighborly "trapping contest," even find ways to get rid of the "nature" in their back yards. (Before releasing them in a nearby park.)