Benson explains that though many people may think that squirrels have simply persisted in urban landscapes since Europeans arrived in the U.S., their presence is actually the result of intentional introductions.
“By the mid-19th century, squirrels had been eradicated from cities,” he said. “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.”
In researching the history of squirrels in American cities, Benson found the first documented introduction occurred in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square in 1847. Other introductions followed in 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…
Benson also found signs in his research that squirrels played another important role for city residents, particularly children: as moral educators.
“Feeding squirrels becomes adopted as a way of encouraging humane behavior,” Benson said…
By the time the environmental movement took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, Benson argued, squirrels in the urban environment were no longer widely seen as morally significant members of the community and instead began to be viewed with a more ecological mindset. Ideas of letting them live out life “as nature intended” took a stronger hold.
In other words, Americans have been influencing the habitats and behaviors of squirrels for over a century and a half. It is interesting to see the progression from wanting to have more squirrels and nature (within a particular urban vision of parks), to feeding squirrels, to taking a more hands-off approach. What how will humans interact with squirrels in a few decades?
One of the stranger places for human-squirrel interactions is the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Squirrels are regularly seen outside the dining halls with large pieces of food, like muffins or cookies. Some of these squirrels were also quite large which appeared to hamper their running abilities. I have no doubt that students or visitors occasionally fed the squirrels. See some examples at the Squirrels of Notre Dame Facebook page or this 2011 column from the student newspaper on how the squirrels are viewed (hint: the title is “Reasons we love squirrels”).