If Jane Goodall and Wes Anderson were to collaborate, the end result might look something like the Squirrel Census. It’s a project that strives to count the number of Eastern gray squirrels in certain urban areas and then present those findings in a preciously art-directed format.
There is also merchandise.
So, is it science? Is it performance art?
What is the Squirrel Census?
“That’s my favorite question,” said Jamie Allen, creator of the Squirrel Census. “I think it means that, at least from my perspective, we’re doing exactly what I want to do.”
Allen, 49, lives in Inman Park, a onetime Atlanta suburb that has been subsumed by the city. A writer, he works in branding. The Squirrel Census grew out of a short story Allen was trying to write from the point of view of his squirrel-obsessed dog, Sophie.
Allen wondered: If the squirrels of Inman Park were ever to stage an uprising — as the Sophie in his short story believed — how many squirrels would that be?
“I called the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Allen said. “I called the Humane Society. I called the city. Basically, I was laughed off the phone at each place.”
So Allen decided to count the squirrels himself. Because he’d become fascinated with infographics, he decided to present the findings in a unique way. And because he works in branding, the whole project can leave you wondering whether it’s all a bit of a put-on.
No, Allen insists, it’s real. Well, most of it.
Allen assembled a team of like-minded volunteers — including wildlife experts and cartographers — and in April 2012, they set about tallying the squirrels. They divided Inman Park and used a method invented by Vagn Flyger , the University of Maryland squirrel expert who died in 2006.
“We counted each hectare twice, once early in the morning when the squirrels were up and then right before sunset,” Allen said. “Then we’d take those numbers and put them into the formula. It gives you the Squirrel Abundance Number.”
In 2012, the SAN for Inman Park was 861.
With $9,000 raised through Kickstarter, they printed a pair of sumptuous, handsome posters — one a map, one a chart — delineating their findings. They repeated the census in 2015, when they counted 928 squirrels in the 151-hectare neighborhood.
Allen said that one aspect of the Squirrel Census is the data: How many squirrels?
“Then we get into sort of the second tier, which is hyperbole, exaggeration and straight-up fiction,” he said.
In its materials, the Squirrel Census has spun little stories of the squirrels: their lives, their deaths, their dreams, their fashions. Allen printed a set of pinups from PlaySquirrel magazine. If you want a T-shirt of a monocle-wearing, pipe-smoking squirrel, you can get one for $15 at SquirrelCensus.com.
So, science or performance art?
“A lot of scientists that we talk to love it and think it’s great,” Allen said. “I know there are some out there who are just pulling out their hair and saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
Allen and his team have created a very basic app, Squirrel Sighter. When you see a squirrel — dead or alive — you simply push a button on your smartphone.
“It notes your location, time, date and weather,” he said. “All that data goes back to Squirrel Census headquarters. We have no idea what we’re going to do with it. Maybe we’ll find a secret message from aliens in it.”
Having twice counted the squirrels of Inman Park, Allen and his crew have set their sights on bigger quarry: In October, they will count squirrels in New York’s Central Park.
“It’s going to be like going to the moon,” Allen said. “If you’re talking about parks, Central Park is the moon. It’s, like, the most famous park and it’s in the media capital. And it’s a challenge.”
It’s twice as big as Inman Park and will require — Allen estimates — at least 200 volunteers. He has managed to snag sponsorship from MailChimp, the email marketing platform.
Some may say this is all a lot of effort over the lowly squirrel. Not me. I devote a week’s worth of columns to the things, after all.
Besides, Allen sees benefits beyond just arriving at a number at the bottom of a spreadsheet.
“The whole act of going out and doing things like this gets people involved in their community, makes them see it in a different way,” he said. “They learn things about urban nature and their place in urban nature. They learn what an incredible creature the Eastern gray squirrel is: athletic, intelligent, a survivor.”
Squirrels of the world: It’s time to stand up and be counted.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.