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Squirrel perched on a trash can Credit: Alvin Loke , Alvin Loke

Have you ever wondered how Penn’s notorious squirrels came to Philadelphia in the first place?

History and Sociology of Science professor Etienne Benson studied the answer. He published an article called “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States” in the Journal of American History last week. The Daily Pennsylvanian interviewed him about his research.

Daily Pennsylvanian: How did you decide to research the subject of the squirrel?

Etienne Benson: I had spent some time looking at —in my earlier work — big, charismatic, exotic animals like tigers and killer whales and grizzly bears which are all fascinating. But at some point, I realized I was ignoring the landscape around me. In fact, I was writing about animals that I had never seen in the flesh. And I really wanted to shift my focus to things that I was familiar with and to the everyday landscape around me.

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DP: When did the gray squirrel population become urbanized?

EB: I had always kind of assumed that they were around but it turns out that if you look back to the mid 19th century, they’re not in urban areas at all — or at least not in the centers of urban areas even though you might find them on the outskirts of cities.

And to me, one of the things that I found looking through old newspapers that was most striking was an article in New York, I think in the New York Times in the mid 1950s, which was about an escaped pet gray squirrel and it describes dozens of people gathered around a tree on the street looking up at a squirrel while the owner tries to recapture it and a policeman comes along to disperse the crowd.

In Philly, in the late 1840s, there had been an introduction of squirrels into the public squares. It was just to beautify the city. And Boston decided to follow suit so they kind of copied Philadelphia, introduced squirrels into the Boston Common and then a few other cities did. And then New York in the 1870s introduced squirrels into Central Park and then following that it just kind of exploded.

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DP: What is something that most people don’t know about squirrels, or the history of squirrels?

EB: Most people don’t know that people chose to have them in the city. This is a real choice. It was an intentional project of a whole bunch of people, a variety of people: naturalists, zoo directors, park administrators, administrators of cemeteries … children’s writers, poets. All these people thought it would be a great idea to have squirrels in the city and they collectively made this happen in the late 19th century and we are kind of living with the consequences of their choices.

DP: Do you have one favorite anecdote from the course of your research?

EB: Yeah, I do. So one of these people that I just mentioned who was a big squirrel enthusiast was named Ernest Thompson Seton. He was a Canadian-American naturalist … and he was also one of the co-founders of the Boy Scouts … His idea was that if you introduce a squirrel to cities and if you taught boys that it was more fun to feed them than it was to hunt them or to torture them, then you could teach boys the value of compassion and charity. I love the idea of kind of a campaign of missionary squirrels spreading across the country teaching young boys how to be compassionate and charitable.

DP: What does the squirrel say?

EB: I don’t really know and I also don’t know what the fox says. Might as well leave it at that.

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