They are a common sight in DC and as our columnist finds out, the city’s squirrels apparently even had ‘connections’ back in the day.
The one thing you will notice about DC is that it is teeming with squirrels. Lots of them. Whether grey or black, scampering amidst the branches of the leafy oak trees that line our street or darting across the pavements, these roving rodents certainly have the run of our neighbourhood. Just the other day, a rather corpulent one collided into my husband’s calf, leaving him shaken, but the squirrel was unstirred.
A neighbour four doors down even has a metal mini deck chair propped against his fence. While I had initially wondered at this, I eventually spotted a squirrel sitting on it one day nibbling on a nut as if that was how nature intended. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any electronic devices on me then to snap a picture that would have otherwise accompanied this story so well!
So how did this current batch of Sciurus carolinensis come to have the run of the city – even to the point of inspiring several investigative articles by the Washington Post (WP) no less?
While versions abound and sometimes conflict, what is clear is that the squirrels’ ancestors had cronies in the Capitol. Apparently, the government had a hand in the propagation of the city’s squirrels, dating back to the dawn of the 20th century.
In the case of the grey squirrel, it was once native to this area and it is believed that the dual effects of deforestation for urban development as well as unregulated hunting had decimated its numbers. An Elliot Woods, who was the Architect of the Capitol from 1902–1923, decided to reverse the trend and thus spearheaded a move to repopulate parts of the city, including the US Capitol grounds, with these cute critters.
So, in 1899, he contacted the Land Office of the neighbouring state of Virginia, requesting a pair of squirrels, which the state eventually sent over. It made the headlines in the 1901 WP that read: “Several pairs of interesting little animals to be set free among the trees.” A 2013 WP report refers to this pair as “the Adam and Eve of all the squirrels that now populate the National Mall.”
This act thus sparked a growing public interest in the squirrels with advocates/fans urging for more of them to be introduced to other areas of the city. “A 1906 congressional report noted that the ‘experiment already made of liberating grey squirrels in the grounds of the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of Agriculture shows how much public interest is aroused in work of this kind’.”
Other reports also credit the efforts of Edward Schmid, who was a well-known local animal dealer whose clients included First Families and other luminaries. Apparently, he was chummy with the then President Theodore Roosevelt, whose children, according to a 1907 news item, played with squirrels Schmid provided for the White House grounds.
It was also during Roosevelt’s presidency that the first black squirrels made their way into the city’s landscape. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s archives, 18 black squirrels from the crown lands in Ontario, Canada, were released into National Zoo, although the grounds for this remain sketchy. Some presume that it was to make up for the dwindling populations of grey squirrels.
Either way, these bushy-tailed immigrants took to their new quarters and began multiplying – much to the delight of the two-legged locals.
Assimilation, however, is not without its problems and the history of the squirrels is also dotted with stories both for and against them. As with any novelty, they were initially welcomed and coddled. When it became evident that cats were eyeing them as new fodder, residents suggested forming “cat patrols”. Others worried that they would starve during the harsh winters, and still others suggested the building of overhead bridges for squirrels when motorised vehicles started becoming popular and squirrels started becoming roadkill.
However, the squirrels exerted their right to squirrelly pursuits like pulling up bulbs and plants while foraging for food, causing much furore among gardeners. Ironically, they also hit exactly where they were once celebrated – at the White House.
Apparently, during the tenure of President Dwight Eisenhower, they’d messed up the avid golfer’s putting green, thus putting into motion “Operation Squirrel Seduction” (later renamed “Operation Exodus”) that saw three resident squirrels being relocated elsewhere. However, when the press broke this news, there was an outcry that brought the operation to a premature end.
The following decades were marked with similar love-hate stories, only that the squirrels have continued to enjoy more love than hate up to the present.
I do keep an eye out for them though after a neighbour warned me that they could gnaw through our windows’ insect screens to get to my cats’ food.
However, they’ve had their cuteness quotient going for them and for now, they keep my cats and me entertained with their antics.
> Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Washington DC. She wouldn’t mind having a squirrel for a pet. Additional reference: Washington Post articles