This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Squirrels aren’t natural city slickers. In 1856 the sight of one in a tree near New York’s city hall so shocked passersby that a newspaper published a report about the “unusual visitor.”
Around that time, the tree-dwelling rodents were being released in America’s urban areas to “create pockets of rural peace and calm,” says University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson, who studied our relationship to squirrels over the course of five years.
First they were introduced to Philadelphia, then to New Haven, Boston, and New York City. Park visitors were encouraged to feed them, and security guards ensured their safety. In the 1910s a Boy Scouts leader proclaimed that teaching children to feed squirrels could show the rewards of treating a weaker creature with compassion, says Benson.
By the early 20th century, though, America began to regret the hospitality it had shown squirrels. Cities had once been filled with animals—from horses pulling buggies to dairy cows and slaughterhouse livestock. By the 1950s those working animals had been moved to rural areas. Pets and wild animals such as birds and squirrels were all that remained of the urban animal kingdom.
Before long, the squirrels’ novelty waned, and they started to be seen as nuisances. By the 1970s many parks prohibited feeding the creatures. Today, says Benson, “people’s experiences with squirrels depend on their real estate investments.”
What would be lost if the last of these city dwellers were expelled? “I think there’s something constructive to having other living creatures in the city that are not humans and not pets but share the land with us,” says Benson. “Can we find some kind of happy medium? It’s a good thing to live in a landscape where you see other creatures going around making lunch. It’s good for the soul.”