A capital herd of squirrels
By Janet Burkitt
Special to The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó Some Washingtonians love them. Some hate them. But perhaps the prevailing sentiment toward the cityís squirrels is indifference. After all, seeing a gray squirrel rushing around downtown as if he has important places to be is about as unusual as seeing a guy in a charcoal suit doing the same.
But it wasnít always that way.
A little more than a century ago, the District of Columbiaís downtown parks didnít have a squirrel population to speak of, according to accounts from the time. Eastern gray squirrels are native to the area, but they had been largely wiped out in the urban parts of town by the late 19th century because of hunting.
Looking to fill the squirrel vacuum, nature lovers, government officials and other civic-minded residents in the early 1900s pushed to have areas including Lafayette Square, the U.S. Capitol grounds and the Mall stocked with squirrels. iSeveral Pairs of Interesting Little Animals to Be Set Free Among the Treesî read a 1901 headline in The Washington Post, announcing plans by the Architect of the Capitol.
A 1906 congressional report noted that the iexperiment already made of liberating gray squirrels in the grounds of the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of Agriculture shows how much public interest is aroused in work of this kind.î Over the next few years, a considerable squirrel presence emerged in Lafayette Square and on the White House grounds across the street.
Like so many Washingtonians, these early squirrels were transplants, and they were public servants in a way as well, brought here to satisfy a public eager for the pleasure of having squirrels in its parks. Squirrels in Lafayette Square quickly became a beloved fixture, attracting locals who fed them faithfully and marveled at their antics. Squirrel houses and iron receptacles for drinking water were installed.
No less an authority than Richard Thorington Jr., curator of mammals for the Smithsonian Institutionís National Museum of Natural History and co-author of iSquirrels: The Animal Answer Guide,î published in 2006, says he wasnít familiar with some of the accounts of local gray squirrel releases. But, he says, heís not surprised.
The introduction of squirrels into new areas was not unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says. The eastern gray squirrel was introduced in the United Kingdom in the 1880s and South Africa in 1900, he and co-author Katie Ferrell note in their book.
The local publicís fascination with Sciurus carolinensis is better understood in the context of the urban park movement of the mid-1800s. As cities grew and became more densely populated, the notion emerged that iwhat was needed from parks was an antidote to the city itself,î says Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of iThe Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design.î iIn the late 19th century, there was a growing sense that the public needed urban parks to walk through and enjoy ërural scenery.í î
Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture, believed people derived a mental benefit from exposure to nature. Animals were sometimes introduced into urban parks to enhance the experience. Herds of sheep trimmed the grass and provided a pleasant spectacle in some parks, most notably New Yorkís Central Park, which had a herd until 1934. Squirrels played a similar aesthetic purpose in Washington.
As the squirrel population grew in Washington, so did the litany of concerns residents had for their welfare. People complained that stray cats were terrorizing and killing squirrels at an alarming rate, prompting government officials to consider forming a police icat patrolî in 1912 to squelch the iuntimely assassination of the little gray denizens of the city by murderous cat outlaws,î The Post reported. People wrote to park officials complaining of dog owners who let their pets chase squirrels and of basins that were too filthy to provide adequate drinking water for them.
The squirrelsí food supply was a recurrent public anxiety. In 1929, Ulysses S. Grant III, director of the federal office overseeing public parks (and grandson of the president and Civil War general), wrote to one resident expressing concerns that every year, iapproximately 2,000 quarts of raw peanuts are purchased and distributed by employees of this division and the Park Police.î
In 1955, White House squirrels were scratching up President Dwight Eisenhowerís private putting green on the lawn just outside his office. Messing with Americaís First Golfer is not a good idea. The White House squirrel patrol was put on high alert and launched iOperation Squirrel,î which culminated in the trapping and relocation of three resident squirrels.
News of the covert op reached the news media, and a public outcry ensued. Sen. Richard Neuberger, D-Ore., launched a drive to save the White House squirrels, ponying up $25 to start a fund for a fence around the green. Within days, the White House announced that Operation Squirrel was over.