From Portrait Painters To College Applicants, Squirrel Obsessives Through the Ages
“As I look around now, I don’t see much except for squirrels,” says Janet George as she surveys the interior of her Pennsylvania home.
If there’s a squirrel on it, it’s probably in George’s house. There are ceramic squirrel figurines, a squirrel rug, squirrel paintings and wall hangings. She has a squirrel light switch cover and squirrel dishes. She has a stash of squirrel board games and children’s books.
“Nine days out of ten I have a squirrel T-shirt on,” says George, “I have squirrel photos at my desk [at work] and actually, my nickname is ‘Squirrel’.”
Her inanimate army is just the beginning; she courts her neighborhood’s living squirrels with backyard feeders and carries filbert nuts to entice others when she’s out.
George is the president of The Squirrel Lover’s Club, a 20-year-old group with about 1,500 dues-paying members that hail from around the world. The club’s mission and duties are simple: Members pay $28 ($31 outside the U.S.) annually for the privilege of being in a fraternity of squirrel obsessives and to receive a bi-monthly newsletter called In a Nutshell in the mail that offers squirrel news and stories. As a kind of squirrel fan-fiction, George offers fictional stories of a group of talking squirrels who live in their town mayor’s yard. Another column is attributed to a British squirrel, “Hector”, with “help” from his human companion.
If extreme, George’s squirrel mania is not unique.
There was a time when squirrels were largely appreciated for their meat if they were appreciated at all. (And recently squirrel meat has been going through a kind of hipster renaissance, finding its way onto upscale menus at spots such as London gastropub The Jugged Hare.) Not that there weren’t pioneering squirrel fans: Colonial portraits sometimes depicted their subjects with a pet squirrel, often on a delicate chain, suggesting their master was so refined they had managed to tame a wild beast.
But during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, squirrel love reached new heights. Many U.S. cities undertook an effort to enliven green spaces by introducing squirrels. Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, New York and others all released squirrel populations in public spaces. And once loosed, they weren’t left to fend for themselves; the cities frequently provided nesting boxes and food. Park visitors fed the animals, sometimes in organized efforts. Etienne Benson, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in his 2013 paper, “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel”, that “devoted squirrel feeders in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., were collectively distributing over seventy-five pounds of peanuts each week.” The trend today is to actively discourage feeding, but the early craze for squirrel watching and feeding solidly inculcated the animal in the popular imagination as an approachable slice of nature.
Even for today’s cat-obsessed internet, squirrels hold appeal. David Wahl is the “Director of Awesome” for Seattle-based novelty company Archie McPhee, which has been doing brisk business in squirrel-themed objects like squirrel underpants (not intended for actual use, although Wahl said he has received a photo of a squirrel sporting a pair) and tiny squirrel coffee mugs. For humans there is a squirrel mask, a porcelain “Squirrel Attack” mug, and a squirrel head wall decoration. For Christmas, shoppers can hang a squirrel-in-underpants ornament from their tree.
“We look for things that people have an emotional connection to and put our twist on it,” wrote Wahl in an email to Atlas Obscura. “To a lot of people [squirrels]are almost invisible creatures that live alongside us, but to others they are an almost super genius level adversary that sets out to destroy everything they hold dear.”
So the company decided to make items that made mischievous squirrels seem a little bit ridiculous. They sell a range of squirrel feeders that invite the animals to stick their maws inside what are essentially pint-sized mascot heads, transforming them into unicorns, a horse, or a much bigger squirrel.
“We promised to “humiliate and feed” squirrels,” wrote Wahl. “This represented, to us, the perfect love/dislike relationship some people have with them.”
So why do people respond with such enthusiasm to squirrels?
“They are like pets you don’t have to feed, but are always there for you,” writes Wahl.
Vancouver-based artist Carollyne Yardley has also built a career on the appeal of squirrels. Calling her work “Squirrealism”, she paints detailed oil portraits depicting anthropomorphic squirrels sporting bouffants, space helmets and hoodies. They clutch crucifixes, play bagpipes, and ride roosters and butterflies. Some of her paintings depict the Archie McPhee squirrel mask, which was sent to her by friend and patron Wahl. Yardley was initially inspired by squirrels that frequented her lawn.
“I talk to squirrels every day from dawn ‘til dusk,” wrote Yardley in an email to Atlas Obscura. “Watching them climbing around, chasing crows and deer, and causing general hilarity in the yard.”
According to Yardley, her clients tend to see elements of themselves in the inscrutable faces of her furry subjects.
Perhaps one of the biggest hotbeds for squirrel infatuation are college campuses. The University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, and Cornell University all host official squirrel clubs that encourage activities from squirrel-watching to feeding. Other colleges have squirrel mascots, squirrel festivals, and blogs.
Ben Nachman founded the Cornell Squirrel Club in 2009 as a sophomore. (He is now a graduate student in physics at Stanford University.) Nachman’s squirrel obsession began as a child and he founded his first squirrel club in high school. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, he outfitted his backyard with squirrel feeders, including one that required them to sit on a tiny wooden throne in order to eat a corncob with royal aplomb.
Like George of The Squirrel Lover’s Club, Nachman collects squirrel novelties and likes wearing clothes adorned with squirrel images. Finding members of the club was not a problem, Nachman told Atlas Obscura in an email. Once he created a listserv, hundreds signed up. Today there are 640 members of the listserv, and during Nachman’s time around a dozen or so members would gather to take part in squirrel-themed activities, including watching movies with squirrel stars such as Ice Age, Over the Hedge and Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Nachman loves them because they are “so peaceful, (seemingly) free-spirited, and cute.” The small mammals were also partly responsible for his accceptance into the Ivy League. The subject of Nachman’s college entrance essay was, of course, squirrels.
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