You can be the greatest tour guide ever to stroll the streets of Washington, captivating teachers and students alike, imparting nuggets of wisdom that will last decades in young mind, and it will all fall apart upon the sighting of one rodent. No, I am not talking about DC's famous rats, which have been known to grow to the size of house cats and carry off small children. I speak instead of the common Grey Squirrel, which overshadows even the White House in fascination to many of my school groups. Truth be told, I've in the course of my life paid little attention to squirrels, until I became a Guide. After a year or two of being interrupted in the midst of what I thought was an insightful and witty interpretation of a fascinating bit of American History by the cry of "Look! A Squirrel!", I decided to take a look at what all the fuss is about.
While other squirrels dwell in the DC area (more on that later), it's the Eastern Grey Squirrel that dominates the local landscape. Perhaps because they're so common, I couldn't get my mind around the fascination with them. Certainly, for my west coast groups, this is an animal they would not see outside of zoos or perhaps small pockets of introduced species. But even my east coast groups went nuts over them, to the point of one teacher composing a particularly bad song about them titled, unfortunately enough, "Presidential Squirrel". A feat for which no atonement would ever suffice.
"Presidential Squirrel" is fitting in one (and only one) sense though: the area around the White House, and Lafayette Square in particular, is the mothership of the squirrel invasion. While I can confirm this anecdotally, empirical evidence backs me up. In the early 1980's the National Park Service commissioned a study of the area (pdf) and found that Lafayette Park had a greater density of Eastern Grey Squirrels than had ever been seen. Ever. Anywhere. That's right, in a couple blocks we had more squirrels per square foot than anywhere else in the world, up to 140 squirrels sighted. In fact, from those peak numbers, the Park Service has steadily working to reduce the number of squirrels in the area. It turns out this is way more squirrels than can be supported, and in addition to the damage they cause, the squirrels themselves suffer from inadequate shelter in winter months, as well as disease and fighting worsened by overcrowding.
So maybe it's not just the sighting of the squirrel, but their abundance, and even over-abundance, that delights our visitors. Looking at it with new eyes, they are everywhere, and exceedingly tame. Being urban animals, they have long since become accustomed to relying on humans for their food supply and have lost anything approaching a wariness to us. From being virtually extinct in Washington, their planned replacement has succeeded overwhelmingly. Now the concern is how to control them, not bringing them back.
And, in fact, one of the greatest challenges the Park Service faced in the 1980s in Lafayette Square were well meaning "feeders" that provided approximately 75 pounds of peanuts for the squirrels per week. This allowed the extraordinary population boom, and the resultant crashes, as too many animals attempted to live in too crowded a space. Getting the feeders to stop their well meaning activities was critical to allowing a sustainable population to thrive. All which we should remember as we walk about Washington, DC today. Don't feed the wild animals. Because one plump squirrel is cute, fifteen scrawny squirrels with scratch marks and tufts of hair missing are not.