Squirrel photo contest winner and others reflect on the animal we love, and love to hate

John Kelly
Columnist April 12

All good things must come to an end, and so it is with Squirrel Week. If we were to celebrate Squirrel Month or the International Year of the Squirrel, it’s quite likely we would tire of the furry, little creature. No, a week seems about right.

Every year, Squirrel Week seems to get a little bigger. I’m still hoping to pull off a Squirrel Symposium, in which the world’s squirrel experts descend on Washington for several days of lectures and meetings, slide shows and exhibitions. And how about a humongous inflatable squirrel head and tail adorning The Washington Post building, a la the big great white that sometimes sprouts from Discovery’s HQ during Shark Week?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Impossible, you say? Well, who would have thought The Post would hang eight massive photos of squirrels in our front window near the lobby? These were the finalists in our inaugural Squirrel Week Squirrel Photography Contest. Nearly 400 people entered.

The winner was Ian Richardson, a retired aeronautical engineer and church administrator who lives with his wife at Leisure World in Lansdowne, Va. Ian is an avid amateur photographer. He was out taking a walk on the grounds of Leisure World when he spied a squirrel going in and out of a hole in the trunk of a dead tree. He set his Nikon D600 — fitted with a Sigma 300-800mm telephoto lens — on a tripod and, he said, “happened to be lucky enough to catch two of them trying to do it at the same time.”

Ian professed no special affection for squirrels. “They’re kind of cute, but a nuisance,” he said.

I think that sums up the continuum on which humans place squirrels: cute on one end, a nuisance on the other. I heard from several readers who were adamant that Squirrel Week was little better than al-Qaeda Week.

Hyattsville’s June Schmitz wasn’t that reactionary, but she did write: “Squirrels are getting much unwarranted praise. You should be telling about the destructive creatures they are, instead of rating them so high on the cuteness meter. Come to my garden and witness the havoc and thievery that goes on.”

June said last year that she managed to harvest only about six tomatoes from the hundred or so that grew on the vines. “Even though I have tried to squirrel-proof the plants, those marauders manage to gormandize every tomato in sight,” she wrote. “They manage to get into netting, cages and every contrivance I can devise to keep them out. So much for my larger brain.”

Even a bumper crop of acorns doesn’t seem to sate the squirrels, who just eat all the tomatoes before moving on to the tree seeds.

“I could go on and on,” June wrote, “but please give the little menaces their due. They are not nice!”

Well, what animal is? The niceness gene probably doesn’t convey any evolutionary advantage in nature. Any squirrel that appears to be nice has an ulterior motive.

And, of course, humans have been as hard on squirrels as squirrels have been on humans. Waldorf’s Dale Stroud grew up in southern Indiana in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, he said, there were four seasons. Winter meant rabbit hunting. Spring was for collecting morel mushrooms. Summer was spent fishing. And in autumn there was squirrel hunting.

“I had three guns,” Dale wrote. They were a 20-gauge shotgun, a .410-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle.

“The 20-gauge tore the squirrels up,” Dale wrote. “The .22 rifle required you to be a sharpshooter, so the .410-gauge was the best. . . . My dad loved squirrel stew and dumplings made with the head. Every boy had a squirrel tail on his bicycle.”

There are more than 275 species of squirrels in the world. They do their thing in nearly every corner of the planet. Often, they come in contact with humans. The results are cute, funny, silly, sad, heartwarming, aggravating. And that’s why there is a Squirrel Week.

I’ll give Marge Mathieu the last word. She enjoys watching squirrels outside her home in Leisure World in Silver Spring. “Do you know why the chicken crossed the road?” Marge asked. “To show the squirrels it could be done.”

Seeing the squirrels

To see Ian’s squirrel photo — and those of other finalists — go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Don’t forget that Answer Man needs your questions about the Washington area. Send them to answerman@washpost.com.

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