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Penn researcher traces the history of the American urban squirrel

Until recently, Etienne Benson, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of History and Sociology of Science, has trained his academic eye on the history of conservation of large, charismatic wildlife, such as tigers, grizzly bears and orcas.

With his latest publication, however, he consciously chose to investigate a creature that may be considered less exotic, and is certainly smaller.

"I wanted to write about something a bit closer to home, about things we see and encounter every day," Benson said. "I wanted to shift the focus to the urban and the quotidian and, in some sense, the trivial, to see what we can learn by looking at trivial nature, or nature that is at risk of being interpreted as trivial."

So he turned his attention to the squirrel.

His paper, "The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States," published in the December issue of the Journal of American History, examines how the now-ubiquitous bushy-tailed critters found homes in American cities, and how their presence there altered people's conceptions of nature and community.

Benson explains that though many people may think that squirrels have simply persisted in urban landscapes since Europeans arrived in the U.S., their presence is actually the result of intentional introductions.

"By the mid-19th century, squirrels had been eradicated from cities," he said. "In order to end up with squirrels in the middle of cities, you had to transform the urban landscape by planting trees and building parks and changing the way that people behave. People had to stop shooting squirrels and start feeding them."

In researching the history of squirrels in American cities, Benson found the first documented introduction occurred in Philadelphia's Franklin Square in 1847. Other introductions followed in Boston and New Haven in the 1850s. These early releases were small in scale, and intended to "

Contact: Katherine Unger Baillie
University of Pennsylvania

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