Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. When it came to inventing the horse head squirrel feeder, however, a rather more complicated process was at work.
“We were trying to think of a way to be nice to squirrels and humiliate them at the same time,” said David Wahl of the Seattle-based novelty toy company Archie McPhee.
David’s title at Archie McPhee is “director of awesome,” and the company does sell a lot of awesome stuff: bacon-scented body wash, an Edgar Allan Poe lunchbox, an inflatable unicorn horn you strap on your cat.
It has recently carved out territory in the hotly contested area of squirreliana, with such products as squirrel-shaped salt and pepper shakers, squirrel underpants (“Are you sick and tired of squirrels running naked in the trees around your house?” reads the ad copy) and tiny squirrel coffee cups (“As you sit down for your morning coffee, have you ever considered sharing with the squirrels?”).
But nothing is as weirdly captivating as the $15 horse head squirrel feeder, photos of which went viral soon after it went on sale a few months ago.
What exactly is the HHSF? It is a hollow, vinyl horse head into which users place peanuts, peanut butter or seeds. When a curious squirrel peers inside in search of food, it momentarily looks as if it is wearing a giant horse head mask.
If you cannot fathom what is entertaining about a squirrel wearing a giant horse mask, then this product is not for you.
The feeder is based on a horse head mask that Archie McPhee makes for humans. That creepy mask — which sells for $22.95 — is the firm’s most famous item. It went viral on the Internet in 2010 after a man in Aberdeen, Scotland, donned the vinyl mask as a Google Street View camera went past. Then in 2012 a shirtless, horse-mask-wearing Washington man sprinted past an NBC4 reporter doing a live shot during a rainstorm.
“We think of it as instant surrealism,” David said. “If you’re walking through a normal day at the mall and you see someone in the Orange Julius wearing a horse mask, it really makes you stop and take account of everything in your life.”
It’s this sort of cognitive dissonance that the company specializes in. It already had a giant squirrel head squirrel feeder on the market — hungry squirrels look macrocephalic while they eat — which David said showed “proof of concept.” Then last year David and his creative team brainstormed other feeder ideas.
“We debated a lot,” David said. He wouldn’t reveal all their ideas — “There is industrial espionage in the novelty squirrel head feeder industry,” he deadpanned — saying only, “Abe Lincoln did come up in conversation.”
The surest bet was the horse head. It was added to the catalogue in February and started flying off shelves in March, when Fort Lauderdale, Fla., photographer Jim Zielinski captured the feeder in use.
“To be honest, when I first saw [the horse head feeder] I just started cracking up,” Jim said. “I immediately thought of getting photos with it.”
He and his fiancée, Lori, feed the squirrels at their house. With a little trial and error, Jim was able to take the perfect photos. He posted them on his Web site and Facebook page. The Internet took it from there, as the photos exploded on the image-sharing site Imgur and on Reddit.
“There were around 200,000 hits when I went to bed,” Jim said. “ When I woke up, there were around 800,000.”
Jim photographs a lot of big music acts that come through Fort Lauderdale — Kid Rock, Train, Third Eye Blind. “Nothing has gotten anywhere this kind of love,” he said. “Some silly squirrel feeder might be my legacy.”
Jim doesn’t mind. “I’m grateful people are sharing it. It was meant to bring a smile.”
So what is it about squirrels that people find so captivating, that makes them worthy of both affection and ridicule?
“I think there’s a fascination with the look of squirrels,” David said. “People like them. They associate them with a healthy ecosystem. . . . For a city dweller especially it’s a reminder of nature. But at the same time, they’re also filthy and a little mean. You wouldn’t want to hold a squirrel or catch a squirrel. Some people call them the rats of the trees.”
I asked David what he thought the squirrels would make of all this.
“The great part about it is, since squirrels don’t have Internet access, they don’t know that we’re making fun of them,” he said. “If they actually had access to the Internet, they would be angry.”
Join me at 11 a.m. Tuesday for an online discussion with Etienne Benson, a University of Pennsylvania historian who has studied the introduction of gray squirrels into U.S. cities. To send in questions and comments, go to wapo.st/squirrelchat.