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.