These "squirrel experiments" ended by the 1860s, when many of the cities' squirrel populations had died out or were killed amid concern that they would disturb birds and consequently lead to insect problems. But releases began anew in the 1870s, this time on a larger scale as expansive parks were built in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago and other cities, providing welcoming habitat for squirrels to live and thrive. By the mid-1880s, the squirrel population in Central Park was estimated at 1,500.
The presence of squirrels in cities at this time "started getting tied up with the parks movement led by Frederick Law Olmstead," Benson said. "It was related to the idea that you want to have things of beauty in the city, but it was also part of a much broader ideology that says that nature in the city is essential to maintaining people's health and sanity, and to providing leisure opportunities for workers who cannot travel outside the city."
Benson also found signs in his research that squirrels played another important role for city residents, particularly children: as moral educators.
"Feeding squirrels becomes adopted as a way of encouraging humane behavior," Benson said.
He found several sources, from children's literature to writings of Ernest Thompson Seton, the cofounder of the Boy Scouts, that indicated that feeding squirrels was seen as a way to teach children how to be kind, both to human and nonhuman animals, and "cure them of their tendency toward cruelty."
Though people also fed other urban animals, such as pigeons, at the time, Benson suspected that squirrels might have occupied a unique position, perhaps in part because humans connect more easily with mammals. He wrote that "squirrels' readiness to trust humans and their ability to flourish in the heart of the city seemed to make them living proof of the rewards of extending charity and
|Contact: Katherine Unger Baillie|
University of Pennsylvania