When Squirrels Ruled America’s Homes as Favorite Pets
A children’s encyclopedia published in 1910 has a paragraph on how to secure and care for pet squirrels. The instructions mention how it is advisable to obtain the animal in September when its coat is in the best condition. It also tells what kind of cages should be used, plus a warning that if the teeth are yellow, it means the squirrel is old and should be rejected. The seriousness of the details sounds odd and almost funny, considering squirrels today are mostly untamed and wild, and keeping them as pets is quite rare. The picture was entirely different during the 18th and the 19th century. Squirrels at that time ruled America’s homes as favorite pets.
This fascinating history of how squirrels became America’s pet obsession started more than two hundred years ago. It is an interesting story of companionship, status, possession, and a thriving- flourishing industry that grew because of it.
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The Love of Pet Squirrels in American History
Squirrels were a charming yet tricky affair in the past, as portrayed in Axel Scheffler’s illustrated gem, How to Keep a Red Squirrel. This book draws on advice from the encyclopedia, revealing quirky advice on how to care for pet squirrels. Squirrels should be obtained when young, best if born in captivity, the book says. These critters are difficult to tame and might occasionally give our fingers a nasty nip with their teeth.
Colonial America loved their pet squirrels, as evident from portraits, especially of affluent children, as well as portrayed in period literature. Paintings show squirrels on leashes or collars perched near, or sometimes on, their owners. Flying squirrels were tamed by young boys, as they sat on their shoulders, or followed them everywhere. According to writer Edward Topsell, squirrels were extremely pleasant as household playthings.
To accommodate their chewing habits, tinsmiths sold specially made cages with metal bars and tin lining. When they discovered that their furry friends could run on exercise wheels, more elaborate cages were made, resembling mills with waterwheels.
The Book of Household Pets delved into how to breed, manage, and train squirrels. The book advocated for spacious cages for the pet squirrels and criticized owners who confined them to a “small space of a square foot.” Their cages should be at least six feet long and four feet high, with perches like tree branches, a sleep box, and a water pan, the book suggested
Katherine C Grier’s book Pets in America states squirrels were pretty and lively, and if caught young, easy to tame, too. Squirrel nests were often raided for babies, and baby squirrels were sold in city markets as pets. Gray squirrels were the most common, although red squirrels and flying squirrels were also obtained as pets.
Mungo, the Pet Squirrel, Earned a Eulogy from Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin was known to give gifts that captured the American spirit. One such gift was the common American gray squirrel, which he asked his wife to ship from America for his young friend, Georgiana, in Winchester, U.K. Mungo, as the squirrel was later named, was put on a ship and traveled across the ocean. Along with its safety, the ship’s captain oversaw its comfort. But the beloved American squirrel met an untimely demise at the hands of a dog. In his eulogy, Benjamin Franklin wrote,
I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate end of poor Mungo. Few squirrels were better accomplished, for he had a good education, traveled far, and seen much of the world…
U.S. presidents Warren Harding and Harry Truman both had a pet squirrel named Pete while living in the White House. Moving on to more modern times, squirrels, even though they declined in popularity as pets, continued to occasionally become famous. Twiggy, the Water-Skiing Squirrel, was rescued by the Best family during a Florida Hurricane in 1978. And, of course, everyone remembers Peapod, the cute little squirrel of Bob Ross, the American painter. Even today, we often see squirrels, mostly rescued pets, on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, as they quickly earn fame and popularity on social media.
The Rise and Fall of Squirrels as America’s once Popular Pets
Jane Loudon’s book Domestic Pets (1851) says that the squirrels, “though not so intelligent as a dog,” can be easily trained to jump from one hand to another to look for hidden nuts. If a squirrel was acquired early, it can be domesticated and even capable of affection. Such a squirrel can also recognize its name and roam within the confines of a room, climb up curtains, and run around the cornice.
She describes a pet squirrel as a “beautiful little creature, very agile and graceful in its movements.” In fact, by the 1700s, America’s pet squirrel obsession had already reached its crescendo. They were sold in markets, had specially made pet bags, and cages with wheels, and sometimes even dressed by their owners. One such well-dressed squirrel was Tommy Tucker, the orphaned, celebrated squirrel belonging to Mrs. Mark Bullis of Washington, D.C., who adopted Tommy “before his eyes were open when his mother died and left him in a tree.”
But it was not that easy to tame an animal that had been free and wild by nature. Gradually, people viewed them as pests with sharp teeth that could gnaw through almost everything. Squirrels obtained from the wild mainly remained so, despite best efforts. As pets, they were finicky eaters, often unintentionally injuring owners with their sharp claws. They destroyed furniture and other household items. Even when they learned to be comfortable around owners, they did not usually take kindly to house guests, visitors, or new people. Slowly, as difficulties arose, squirrels became less favored as pets, and the obsession faded. Squirrels were also carriers of diseases that arose from captivity, overfeeding, and lack of cleanliness. If they became ill, they soon died.
Is It Legal to Keep a Squirrel as a Pet Today?
Today, squirrels are considered exotic pets, governed by laws and rules. A few states, like Arkansas, Idaho, and Louisiana among others, allow residents to own pet squirrels. Nebraska has an additional law that squirrels cannot be captured from the wild and kept as legal pets. New Jersey allows red squirrels and flying squirrels as pets, whereas in South Dakota, you need to purchase them from states where they are legal. Still, owning flying squirrels is illegal in 26 states. If you want to experience the joys of keeping a pet squirrel, be aware of the law in your state.
The era of squirrels as America’s favorite pets is a peculiar chapter in its history that has been largely forgotten today. It was an era where squirrel-keeping was an art, unveiling the endearing yet intricate relationship between humans and animals. Though largely forgotten, it is a testimony to a significant, whimsical episode in the tapestry of the American pet culture.
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