Sunday, June 12, 2022

Keeping a Squirrel as a Pet?

Squirrels are a common sight throughout the North Country. They live in wooded areas and forests, but are most-often seen in yards and parks. They’re easily able to survive even the hardest of 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 they can easily take advantage of the abundance of human food sources.

Some people just love them. Some people hate them. I think they can be fun to watch. But I’m aware that they can cause problems and 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 that he’d given to his friend, Dr. Jonathan Shipley, a bishop in the Church of England, “Few squirrels were better accomplished, for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world.” Unfortunately, Mungo escaped confinement one day and was quickly killed by Ranger; a neighbor’s dog. In a 22-line eulogy for Mungo, Franklin lamented, “Alas! Poor Mungo! … Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger! Learn hence, ye who blindly seek more liberty.”

Americans kept squirrels as pets, too. President Warren G. Harding had a pet squirrel named Pete. In 1922, a reporter wrote, “At the conference last Friday, Pete entered the executive offices before the meeting was in session, ran nimbly to and fro during the proceedings, and was one of the last to leave.”

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

As far as I’m concerned, squirrels belong in forested habitats, which provide the food and cover that they require; not in homes. Common tree squirrels (the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)) can become real pests when they get into in attics or nest in barns, causing damage to property and/or crops. It may be amusing to watch young animals in our backyards growing up, but it’s no fun when they’re in the walls and attics of our homes, tearing up the insulation, damaging drywall, defecating everywhere, having babies, and chewing into wood and wiring, increasing the likelihood of a short and the risk of fire. What’s more, they’re noisy and may bite when cornered. And, should one die in the wall or between floors, its carcass may become a breeding place for flies and other vermin and diseases.

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

In fact, chipmunk burrows are more like critter condos or underground bungalows. They’re accessible through multiple entrances / exits and include several food storage chambers, or pantries. (To survive the winter, one chipmunk will gather and store up to a half-bushel of food.) Chipmunk burrows also have a sleeping chamber, a dump, a privy, and a birthing area.

While they typically inhabit woodlands, they also populate areas in and around rural and suburban homes. Like all squirrels, they’re attracted to bird feeders. But, unlike gray and some red squirrels, which seem determined to get to the feeders, which they then damage or destroy, chipmunks are content to gather seed that falls 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 may eat flower bulbs, seeds, or seedlings. And they love strawberries and find tomatoes appealing, too. In fact, they’ll eat all sorts of garden fruits and vegetables.

Hans Holbein the younger’s Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling; ca. 1526 – 1528 National Gallery; London, England

Nonetheless, I know several people, myself included, who have befriended a chipmunk or two. We don’t think of them as pets (although I do know a woman who has a named chipmunk who’s quick to come when she calls); just cute, charismatic, furry little visitors. They’re funny and fun to watch scurrying around or foraging for wild food, which is what they do most of the time. And I do sometimes feel a serenity of sorts, when I’m watching them eat.

I don’t routinely feed wild creatures of any kind (with the exception of birds in winter). But I can live with the consequences of feeding a couple of amusing little chipmunks. I figure as long as I’m not attracting bears, I’ll be fine.

And they’ll eat just about anything; nuts, seeds, cereal grains, fruits (e.g. berries, grapes, apples, cherries, bananas) and vegetables (e.g. corn, cucumber, broccoli, beans, bean sprouts), as long as they’re chopped or cut up into small pieces. Just don’t get carried away. Overfeeding can make them sick. So can giving them junk food (e.g. potato chips) or food that’s going bad. Junk or spoiling food may be taken back to the burrow too, 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 in your yard will allow the less-aggressive ones to fill their cheeks, bellies, and burrows, too.

Photo at top: 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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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

3 Responses

  1. Alan G West says:

    It is illegal in New York to keep any wild animal as a pet.

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    As a young boy I had a gray squirrel who would come to my call, get up on my shoulder and enjoy a peanut. That was close enough.

    As an adult I hand fed a red squirrel until he became demanding and threatened to nip me.

    I will be interested to see other people’s comments.

  3. JT says:

    A couple two or three years ago we had a chipmunk population explosion. They were digging holes in the back yard and getting under the back porch. I got myself one of those small Havahart traps and set it using peanuts as bait. I caught several, who now live on state land a couple miles down the road. Pets they are not.