Sunday, October 5, 2008
Some Washingtonians love them. Some hate them. But perhaps the prevailing sentiment toward the city's squirrels is indifference. After all, seeing a gray squirrel rushing around downtown as if he has important places to be is about as unusual as seeing a guy in a charcoal suit doing the same.
But it wasn't always that way.
A little more than a century ago, the District's downtown parks and green spaces didn't have a squirrel population to speak of. Eastern gray squirrels are native to this area, but they had been largely wiped out in the most urban parts of town by the late 19th century because of hunting, which wasn't outlawed in much of the city until 1906.
Looking to fill the squirrel vacuum, nature lovers, government officials and other civic-minded residents in the early 1900s pushed to have areas including Lafayette Square, the U.S. Capitol grounds and the Mall stocked with squirrels. "Several Pairs of Interesting Little Animals to Be Set Free Among the Trees" read a 1901 headline in The Washington Post, announcing plans by the Architect of the Capitol to introduce squirrels to the grounds.
The Capitol was just the start.
"Why could we not have more squirrels, and in other parks?" a writer asked in a 1904 Post opinion piece. "Certainly Lafayette and Franklin squares would lend themselves readily as suitable homes for them." Clearly, a movement was afoot.
A 1906 congressional report noted that the "experiment already made of liberating gray squirrels in the grounds of the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of Agriculture shows how much public interest is aroused in work of this kind." Over the next few years, a considerable squirrel presence emerged in Lafayette Square and on the White House grounds across the street.
Like so many Washingtonians, these early squirrels were transplants, and they were public servants in a way as well, brought here to satisfy a public eager for the pleasure of having squirrels in its parks. The new arrivals could be attributed in part to the efforts of a well-known local animal dealer named Edward Schmid.
Schmid was the founder of a downtown pet store famous for supplying animals to the families of presidents and other luminaries. He was friendly with President Theodore Roosevelt, whose children, according to a 1907 news item, played with squirrels Schmid provided for the White House grounds.
Squirrels in Lafayette Square quickly became a beloved fixture, attracting locals who fed them faithfully and marveled at their antics. Squirrel houses and iron receptacles for drinking water were installed. Public fears arose occasionally that a tough winter or some other hardship might harm the squirrel population, but government officials assured people that the U.S. Park Police fed the animals as part of its duties. (For the record, feeding wildlife is now prohibited on National Park Service land, which includes the Mall and Lafayette Square.)
An Infusion of Urban Charm
The organized release of gray squirrels into Washington's parks and green spaces is a little-known chapter in the story of the city's development. Even park historians and scientists who have studied the District's squirrel populations weren't aware of these squirrel-stocking endeavors.