Critter City
A Century Ago, Squirrels Were Rare in D.C. How Did They Come to Rule the Capital?

By Janet Burkitt
Special to The Washington Post
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.

No less an authority than Richard Thorington Jr., curator of mammals for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and co-author of "Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide," published in 2006, says he wasn't familiar with some of the accounts of local gray squirrel releases. But, he says, he's not surprised.

The introduction of squirrels into new areas was not unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says. The eastern gray squirrel was introduced in the United Kingdom in the 1880s and South Africa in 1900, he and co-author Katie Ferrell note in their book.

They also detail the release of 18 black squirrels from Canada at the National Zoo in the early 1900s. The black squirrels seen throughout much of the area today are descendants of those squirrels. It is likely, Thorington says, that many of the gray squirrels that flourish in Lafayette Square, on the Mall and in other areas likewise descend from the early gray squirrel releases.

The local public's fascination with Sciurus carolinensis is better understood in the context of the urban park movement of the mid-1800s. As cities grew and became more densely populated, the notion emerged that "what was needed from parks was an antidote to the city itself," says Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design." "In the late 19th century, there was a growing sense that the public needed urban parks to walk through and enjoy 'rural scenery.' "

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., father of American landscape architecture, believed people derived a mental benefit from exposure to nature. Animals were sometimes introduced into urban parks to enhance the experience. Herds of sheep trimmed the grass and provided a pleasant spectacle in some parks, most notably New York's Central Park, which had a herd until 1934. Squirrels, though relatively useless as grass mowers, played a similar aesthetic purpose in the District.

Olmsted, who was one of Central Park's two designers, also served as the U.S. Capitol's first landscape architect. He "gave Washington one of the best examples of his work as a landscape architect when the Capitol grounds were enlarged under his direction," began the 1904 Post piece calling for squirrels in more D.C. parks.

"It is not the least of the charms of those grounds as they are to-day to see the familiar gray squirrels quietly feeding there, or bounding over lawns, or scampering up and through the trees." The piece goes on to say that "people passing through the Capitol grounds, whatever their hurry may be, . . . will stop for a moment and linger over the little gray figures, with all their associations of childhood in the woods."

Protecting the 'Gray Denizen'

As the squirrel population grew in Washington, so did the litany of concerns residents had for their welfare. People complained that stray cats were terrorizing and killing squirrels at an alarming rate, prompting government officials to consider forming a police "cat patrol" in 1912 to squelch the "untimely assassination of the little gray denizens of the city by murderous cat outlaws," The Post reported. People wrote to park officials complaining of dog owners who let their pets chase squirrels and of basins that were too filthy to provide adequate drinking water for them.

The squirrels' food supply was a recurrent public anxiety. In 1929, Ulysses S. Grant III, director of the federal office overseeing the District's public parks (and grandson of the president and Civil War general), wrote to one resident expressing concerns that every year, "approximately 2,000 quarts of raw peanuts are purchased and distributed by employees of this division and the Park Police." Officials also set up a designated feeding ground in Lafayette Square, where wildlife-loving visitors could give food to the squirrels and birds to their heart's content.

The rise of car traffic brought another concern for squirrels: getting squashed. "This is a plea for Washington's squirrels," began one letter to Grant in 1929, which went on to suggest the creation of an overhead system to allow squirrels to cross busy streets. In addition to making the city safer for them, "this improvised means would afford also something more than a symbol for Washington's solicitude for the friendly, beautiful life of its native children," the letter concluded.

A Nut-Fueled Nuisance

That was pretty representative of the tenor of much of the public squirrel record at the time. But there were rustlings of discontent. A homeowner on Woodland Drive NW near the Naval Observatory complained to park officials in 1926 that squirrels were destroying his bulbs and plants. He didn't want to kill them, but they were multiplying rapidly and had become quite active in trying to get into the house.

In 1955, squirrels started bothering the resident of a more prominent home. White House squirrels were scratching up President Dwight Eisenhower's private putting green on the lawn just outside his office. Messing with America's First Golfer is not a good idea. The White House squirrel patrol was put on high alert and launched "Operation Squirrel Seduction" (later renamed "Operation Exodus"), which culminated in the trapping and relocation of three resident squirrels.

News of the covert op reached the news media, and a public outcry ensued. Sen. Richard Neuberger (D-Ore.) launched a drive to save the White House squirrels, ponying up $25 to start a fund for a fence around the green. Within days, the White House announced a halt to the effort. Mission not really accomplished.

The squirrels of President's Park -- the official name for the parkland surrounding the White House, including Lafayette Square -- were just getting started. Squirrel problems were reported over the next- two decades, though nothing raised alarm bells quite like the furor that followed the Lafayette Square squirrel baby boom of 1977. In a two-day period, the burgeoning squirrel population ate more than $2,200 worth of geraniums, according to news reports.

They also gnawed through more than half a dozen newly planted trees, adding to their munchies tab. Park Service staff tried trapping the squirrels and relocating them outside the city but abandoned the effort after it sparked yet another public outcry.

The Hand That Feeds

In 1980, park officials and researchers studied the Lafayette Square squirrel population in-depth. Ultimately, they documented the highest squirrel density ever recorded to that point. But the qualitative observations were perhaps even more striking.

David Manski, who headed the study, says he initially planned to observe just the squirrels. But when he and his colleagues began spending time in the park, he says, it quickly became clear that to understand what was happening with Lafayette Square's squirrels, they needed to watch the park's humans just as closely.

The squirrel-feeding habits of this population, they found, fell into distinct categories: There were "zoo keepers," who fed the squirrels and gave them water out of concern for their well-being. And there were "zoo visitors," who fed the squirrels for entertainment. Their observations were many and fascinating, but the bottom line was that the squirrels were getting a ton of food.

Perhaps squirrels were destined to thrive in Washington. With friends in high places, support from vocal, impassioned lobbyists and a strong public approval rating, their effectiveness as an especially cute special interest group has established them as one of the city's most powerful creatures. And in this town, power is everything. Even when you're living on peanuts.

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