A Public Pet

Why are squirrels so common in American cities? You can thank those faddish Victorians:

[In the early 19th century], squirrels were just another animal running around the woods, mainly useful as a source of food for frontiersmen. If you saw a squirrel in the city, it was almost certainly Red Squirrelbeing kept as a pet. One escaped pet squirrel in New York City, circa 1856, drew a crowd of hundreds according to one of the city papers—which called the squirrel an “unusual visitor.”

Around the same time, a sea change in our relationship with squirrels was already underway in Philadelphia. The city had released three squirrels in Franklin Square in 1847 and had provided them with food and boxes for shelter – and the people loved it. One visitor is quoted as saying “it was a wonder that [squirrels] are not in the public parks of all great cities.” In the years that followed, the trend spread to Boston and New Haven, where squirrels soon grew so fat from humans feeding them that they were falling out of the trees. Cities even started planting nut-bearing trees so that the squirrels would have their own food source.

The squirrel fad really took off in the 1870s, thanks to Frederick Law Olmstead’s expansive parks. … A small number of squirrels planted in the park in 1877 soon grew into a sizable population. By the time it had reached an estimated 1,500 squirrels six years later, authorities even talked about culling the population so that it didn’t get out of control. At the same time, squirrel populations were growing around the country, with squirrels gracing the lawns of both Harvard Yard and Washington D.C.’s National Mall.

(Photo: A girl watches a red squirrel in a circa-1875 greeting card. By Hutton Archive)