Squirrels may be so common in today’s city parks that they threaten to make off with our junk food, but at one time the creatures were rare and exotic visitors whose delightful presence was carefully encouraged. Dan Lewis of Now I Know tells us that the ubiquitous squirrel may have been indigenous to North America, but Central Park’s squirrels didn’t come with the territory: The bushy-tailed natives had become all but extinct on Manhattan island by the 1850s due to rapid development. Just a year before the park’s creation, one lone squirrel, heading down a tree trunk on its way to extinction, stopped traffic as charmed New Yorkers marveled at the antics of the “unusual visitor” to the extent that they had to be dispersed by police, according to accounts by a paper of the day.
In Philadelphia in 1847, the city released three squirrels in Franklin Square, providing food and boxes for shelter and prompting the comment “it was a wonder that [squirrels] are not in the public parks of all great cities.” This trend spread to Boston and New Haven, to the somewhat predictable point that squirrels grew so obese that they began falling out of trees.
New York imported a case of squirrels for its newly-minted park in 1877, providing peanuts so that visitors could feed the critters and nesting boxes for shelter. Again, predictably, Central Park found itself overrun with the furry beasts before anyone could say, “Hey, that’s my milkshake.” In 1883 (writes New York magazine) organized squirrel hunts angered the ASPCA (to say nothing of the squirrels) and ended up not really making a dent in the exploding population. The surrounding community gave in and began to welcome the well-upholstered rodents as a way to interact with nature.
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