“SQUIRREL!” Have you ever wondered why parks and other urban green spaces are filled with squirrels? Well, Etienne Benson, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of History and Sociology of Science, believes that their intentional introduction to America’s green spaces was “essential to maintaining people’s health and sanity”. In his latest paper, “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States,” Benson explains how squirrels were intentionally introduced in order to alter people’s conceptions of nature and community.
“By the mid-19th century, squirrels had been eradicated from cities,” Benson says. “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.”
The first example of intentional squirrel introduction was in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square in 1847. Later, they were introduced to Boston and New Haven in the 1850s. “These early releases were small in scale, and intended to “beautify and add interest to the parks,”” Benson says. However, these squirrels were later eradicated as it was believed that they would disturb birds and consequently lead to insect problems.
Yet, they were introduced to parks again in 1870, and by the mid-1880s the squirrel population in Central Park was around 1,500. “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.”
“Feeding squirrels becomes adopted as a way of encouraging humane behavior,” Benson says. He found several sources that indicated that feeding squirrels was seen as a way to teach children how to be kind—both to humans and nonhuman animals—and “cure them of their tendency toward cruelty.”
While cities are also home to other animals, Benson believes squirrels played a key role, mainly due to human’s ability to connect more easily with mammals. He notes 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 community beyond the bounds of humanity.”
Benson’s study was published in the December issue of the Journal of American History. For his next project, he plans to explore how wildlife has been impacted by human-built infrastructure, inspired by the sights he sees daily outside of the window of his Philadelphia home.