You think instantly of the horse, but when it comes to proclaiming a national mammal (to go with the national bird, the bald eagle) you must look deeply and consider wisely.

The squirrel, in other words. An ideal beast, familiar to and loved by all. An animal that is not endangered, not becoming extinct. And not possessing a famous rear end.

The buffalo has its claims. But it became extinct in the East quite early in the last century.It is easily stampeded, which is a heavy claim for choosing it, but not a good one. As a people we are easily stampeded but I doubt we should boast of it.

The mountain lion is noble and would be a perfect choice except there used to be one on every hill but now it survives only in the middle of nowhere. That is not the message we need.

As everybody knows, Benjamin Franklin objected to the bald eagle as a bird of bad repute. The eagle is now so rare that few Americans have ever seen one in the wild. It is moreover one of the first things to vanish if lesser fry are poisoned with chemicals, as it eats them all.

Franklin wanted the wild turkey, a better choice, but why argue now over lost causes.

Instead, let's get on with a national animal, one that rightly symbolizes the great republic but does not sentimentalize it (my objection to a basset hound puppy, irresistible but certain to make the world go awwwwww) and that does not mock us, as the wild asses of our Western states would do.

No sir, once you give the matter as much thought as I have, you will come up with the squirrel. The name derives, of course, from the Greek words for shadow and tail. We acknowledge, in the national squirrel, our heritage from the classical world, with all that that implies of the first democracy, the love of learning, the execution of Socrates and so on indefinitely.

As the name implies, there is something veiled or formless -- now you see it, now you don't -- about us as a nation. Shadow tail indeed. Hard to say what its bulk and substance are, yet the tail is surely there and is glorious.

The charm of the squirrel is undeniable and a chief reason for its prominence in all our great cities. People cannot resist feeding squirrels, though our manly containment of emotion causes us to say we're "feeding birds."

Most Americans remember the squirrel as savior of starving frontiersmen and, later, as the critical ingredient of Brunswick stew. Squirrels will always be associated with the rifle named for (and used against) them. Like us, the squirrel has a bloody history and has now entered a new era (at least for squirrels) of peace and acceptance.

The squirrel is craftier than the fox. Some call him a thief, merely because the little fellow has to eat. He is thrifty, burying acorns and peanuts everywhere. He is an inspiration to us to save for the coming winter; he is patron of oak forests and a born ecologist.

More pioneers wore squirrel hats than coonskins and more coats were trimmed with squirrel fur than with ermine. In our savage moments as well as our good ones the little squirrel has been right there with us.

His name suggests not only thrift, as he squirrels things away, but also (and I face this head-on) a sort of daffy imbalance. Squirrelly. Well, that's us. But squirrelly is not the same as paranoid or sociopathic. As a nation we are frequently off our rockers but, like the squirrel, we usually recover before all is lost.

Our native squirrels have enormous ears (in the western fox squirrels) and come in gray, reddish, white and black. Our squirrels fly through the air in some species, and in others they leap with a dazzle that commands amazement. They do not fly as well as bats, or see danger ahead as well as bats, but for reasons we need not go into, bats did not make the second cut.

You might ask why we need a national beast to display on our shield. Well, why do we need anything, if you want to start arguing. I am uneasy at the growing number of references to Millie, a White House spaniel, as First Dog. A slippery slope. There is some danger Millie will be proposed as national animal. We had a narrow escape from Falla, a previous White House mutt, and from Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie. Now I love dogs but would never countenance any dog as the national mammal because nothing raises hackles quicker. If a dog were chosen we'd be in a civil war or a general riot as the Hound People chased the Friends of the Poodle and the Terrier Contingent would never let go.

Besides, we want something native, not imported, and something wild, not pampered. The free-roaming, modest, I'm OK, Jack nature of the squirrel is what we want. Write Congress. They have more time than they know what to do with.