Squirrels are not native to modern Kansas City—this is how they got here

“I was living in Boston, and I noticed that tourists who were from out of the country would be kind of fascinated with these creatures and would take photographs of them. It suddenly made me see that something that I had taken for granted was unusual to a lot of people. I started to dig into that history, go through old newspapers, look at old reports from scientists who’d written about squirrels a hundred years ago or more, and I discovered this really fasci-nating story about how people had intentionally started introducing squirrels into American cities in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. People just thought it was going to be really cool to have these creatures hopping around in city parks.

During that time, it was extraordinarily unusual to find squirrels in cities. When people saw squirrels that had been introduced into the city, it’s maybe the same kind of reaction somebody has the first time that they see a red-tailed hawk swooping through a city park. I think that was a big part of the appeal, and it sounds very much like [Kansas City Star founder and prominent developer William Rockhill Nelson] shared that idea.

In the late nineteenth century, a lot of people in American cities got interested in having more trees, so there was a lot of tree planting. Where were those squirrels coming from? There was actually a trade in squirrels as pets, so you could go to some kinds of pet stores, and you might find squirrels, and those were often squirrels that had been captured by hunters.

These animals were being transplanted to places where they had not evolved and also possibly places where they would not have survived if humans hadn’t built cities and filled them with trees and food so the squirrels could eat. I think it’s a really interesting example of how human ideas and values end up reshaping the ecologies that we live within.”

Etienne Benson, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, as told to Anne Kniggendorf, author of  Secret Kansas City, where a portion of this story originally appeared.

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