Squirrels are everywhere in the city and it seems they have been with us forever. While it’s hard to believe now, squirrels were not a common sight in early 19th Century cities, in fact they were considered somewhat exotic and desirable.
My curiosity was peaked when I found references to the mayor of New York gifting the city with 4, 6 or 8 pairs of squirrels in either 1909 or 1914 depending on the book or article. The squirrels were either from New York, Ontario or just eastern Canada.
Despite the ambiguity of the dates and origins of the rodents I always wondered why squirrels were considered by folks back east as a suitable gift. Didn’t we have enough of those rodents already? Turns out, no we didn’t.
The answer came from an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast entitled ‘Uptown Squirrel’ which laid out how the Eastern Grey squirrel became the dominate species in North America through their introduction to newly created urban parks. “Cities of the early 19th century were almost entirely squirrel-free. You could really only find squirrels if you left the city and ventured deep into the woods.” explained historian Etienne Benson. “In fact, squirrels were considered so elusive that the very wealthy liked to keep them as exotic pets. In 1856, an article in the New York Times described how one such pet escaped from its owner’s home in Manhattan. When it was discovered in a tree, a crowd of people gathered in amazement, trying to lure it down.”
Squirrels were intentionally put into parks where they were fed and sheltered. In 1847 Philadelphia became the first city to introduce the species to an urban environment. But the 3 animals soon died. However, as park designs were becoming more ‘natural’ under the auspices of Olmstead and Vaux, squirrels were given an ideal environment to thrive. Eastern greys were introduced again in Philadelphia and to the Pacific cities Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco.
In poking about the Vancouver Daily World a short note on Park Board business mentioned that the Board chair favoured introducing grey squirrels into Stanley park. This after his recent visit to New York, which was expanded upon in a February 25, 1909 article with the headline GREY SQUIRRELS FOR STANLEY PARK which went on to say that “Grey squirrels, which are one of the greatest attractions for the children at Central park, New York, will in all probability be introduced in Stanley park in the near future as the result of Mr. C. E. Tisdall’s trip through the larger eastern cities and to England.” The article concluded with the statement from the Park Board chair that “The grey squirrels of Central park, New York, are about half the size of a rabbit and so tame that they run along the fences to be led by the children. Mr. Tisdall believes they would do well here”.
A March 13, 1909 World article lets readers know that there were two eastern black squirrels on display in the window of Andrews and Nunn, the Mount Pleasant grocers. The “pretty and vivacious” creatures captured in Ontario were to be donated to Stanley park at the end of their store window exhibition. The following month the Park Board commissioners agreed that the Chair would write to the Baltimore Park Board about “securing a number of squirrels for Stanley park“.
The 2003 book Introduced Mammals of the World has an interesting and incorrect examination of the squirrels of Stanley park stating that they were introduced before 1914 with animals from Ontario and that since 1920 the population in the park is between 25 to 60 beasts. Oh, and they can’t spread because they are hemmed in “by the sea on three sides and the city on the fourth.” Somebody didn’t tell the squirrels though.