Keeping a squirrel as a pet? –

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Squirrels are common throughout the north of the country. They live in wooded areas and forests, but are most often seen in yards and parks. They are easily able to survive even the harshest winters and very well adapted to living among people. In fact, gray squirrels frequently occur at much higher densities in urban and suburban settings, where there aren’t many natural predators and where they can easily take advantage of abundant human food sources.

Some people just love them. Some people hate them. I think they can be fun to watch. But I am aware that they can cause problems and I would never consider keeping a squirrel as a pet.

In Europe, however, squirrels were popular pets from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. Benjamin Franklin wrote, of a pet squirrel named Mungo which he had given to his friend, Dr Jonathan Shipley, a Church of England bishop, “Few squirrels were more accomplished, for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world. Unfortunately, Mungo escaped confinement one day and was promptly killed by Ranger, a neighbor’s dog. In a 22-line eulogy for Mungo, Franklin lamented, “Alas! Poor Mungo!… You have fallen into the fangs of a blind and cruel Ranger! Learn therefore, you who blindly seek more freedom.”

Americans also kept squirrels as pets. President Warren G. Harding had a pet squirrel named Pete. In 1922, a journalist wrote: “At the conference last Friday, Pete walked into the executive offices before the meeting was held, ran briskly through the proceedings, and was one of the last to leave.

Daniel Crommelin Verplanck by John Singleton Copley; 1771 Metropolitan Museum of Art

As far as I’m concerned, squirrels belong to forest habitats, which provide them with the food and shelter they need; not in houses. Common tree squirrels (gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)) can become veritable pests when they enter attics or nest in barns, causing damage to property and/or cultures. It can be fun watching young animals grow up in our backyards, but it’s no fun when they’re in the walls and attics of our homes, tearing through insulation, damaging drywall, defecating all over the place, having babies and chewing on wood and wiring, which increases the likelihood of a short circuit and the risk of fire. Additionally, they are loud and can bite when cornered. And, if someone dies in the wall or between floors, their carcass can become a breeding ground for flies and other vermin and disease.

I feel less opposed to chipmunks. Like squirrels, eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are part of the rodent family, Sciuridae, which also includes prairie dogs and groundhogs. But unlike eastern gray squirrels and red squirrels, chipmunks live on the ground. And while they sometimes climb trees; usually in the fall to pick nuts and seeds; they live underground; dig tunnels or dig in well-hidden areas; near and under trees, shrubs, stumps, rocks, gardens, wood and brush piles, and porches. To make the tunnels even less obvious to predators, they carry the mounds of soil away from burrow entrances, into their cheeks. And they keep their burrows very clean.

In fact, chipmunks burrows are more like critter condos or underground bungalows. They are accessible by several entrances/exits and include several food storage rooms or pantries. (To survive the winter, a chipmunk collects and stores up to half a bushel of food.) Chipmunk burrows also have a bedroom, dump, toilet, and whelping area.

Although they generally inhabit the woods, they also inhabit areas in and around rural and suburban homes. Like all squirrels, they are attracted to bird feeders. But unlike gray squirrels and some red squirrels who seem determined to reach the feeders which they then damage or destroy, chipmunks are content to collect the seeds that fall to the ground. In large numbers, however, they can cause damage by burrowing under patios, stairs, retaining walls, or foundations. And, if you have a garden, they can eat flower bulbs, seeds or seedlings. And they love strawberries and also find tomatoes appealing. In fact, they will eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables from the garden.

Hans Holbein the Younger Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling; California. 1526 – 1528 National Gallery; London, England

Nonetheless, I know several people, myself included, who have befriended a chipmunk or two. We don’t consider them pets (although I know a woman who has a chipmunk named who doesn’t hesitate to come when she calls); just cute, charismatic, furry little visitors. They are funny and fun to watch as they scurry around or forage for wild food, which they do most of the time. And I sometimes feel a kind of serenity when I watch them eat.

I do not routinely feed wild creatures of any kind (except birds in winter). But I can live with the consequences of feeding a few fun little chipmunks. As long as I don’t attract bears, I’ll be fine.

And they’ll eat just about anything; nuts, seeds, grains, fruits (eg berries, grapes, apples, cherries, bananas) and vegetables (eg corn, cucumber, broccoli, beans, bean sprouts), provided they are chopped or cut into small pieces. Don’t get carried away. Overfeeding can make them sick. The same goes for giving them junk food (eg potato chips) or food that goes bad. Junk or spoiled food can also be taken back to the burrow and added to the food cache, where it can spoil an entire winter’s food supply.

Chipmunks are territorial animals. They don’t share. So placing food in different areas of your garden will allow less aggressive ones to also fill their cheeks, bellies, and burrows.

Top photo: Pete the Squirrel; a pet of President Warren G. Harding; with then Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby; Library of Congress

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