Squirrel invasion makes campus nuts

Matthew Warshauer

It’s a fact of life that Northwestern students are forced to share their campus with others. And although some students might say Evanston residents are their most direct neighbors, it’s NU’s squirrel population with which students really coexist.

Making their homes on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, squirrels also roam throughout campuses across America. In time for this week’s National Squirrel Awareness Week, a quirky Web site has taken on the task of evaluating the relationships between humans and their furrier counterparts at a myriad of universities.

The Campus Squirrel Listings page, a feature of Jon’s World o’ Squirrels (www.gottshall.com/

squirrels), ranks colleges on a scale from one to five based on the “critter quality” of each respective campus’ squirrel population. The site is the brainchild of Jon Gottshall, an archivist for the Los Angeles Times and passionate Civil War re-enactor.

He asserts that “the quality of an institution of higher learning can often be determined by the size, health and behavior of the squirrel population on campus.” Gottshall’s theory occurred to him in the early 1990s when he traveled to various California universities in the process of writing his graduate dissertation.

“The college’s archives were open for limited times, so I had to wait around on campus, and I got into the habit of feeding the squirrels,” he said.

From there, he began to notice the variations on squirrel behavior from campus to campus and that “squirrels are more friendly on campuses with large populations of active, interesting students who don’t just stay in their rooms and study.”

Gottshall decided to post his findings on a Web site, which he said has gotten as many as 2,000 hits in one week. A phenomenon was born.

NU is not one of the campuses ranked on the site, principally because Gottshall has never heard of it. Because there are too many colleges across the country for him to visit, Gottshall relies on strangers to e-mail him with descriptions and accounts of squirrel populations on which he bases his evaluations.

Although NU is not ranked on Gottshall’s site, students often notice the large squirrel population on campus.

Squirrel enthusiasts Laurel Crawford, a Weinberg freshman, and Kathleen Burzycki, a McCormick and Music freshman, agree the critters live a fulfilling life at NU.

“They’re a lot more active here than they are at home,” said Burzycki, a South Dakota native.”In South Dakota, they usually stayed in the trees, but here they’re always running around, darting in front of you. They let you get a lot closer here without running away.”

Crawford and Burzycki know from experience. The two say they have spent a lot of time feeding and observing what Burzycki calls their “substitute pets.” They have even gotten to know two particular squirrels, which they’ve dubbed Harry and Daphne, on a more intimate level.

“Harry and Daphne are a married couple who live near The Rock,” Burzycki said. “They’re especially friendly and especially cute.”

On an average day, Harry and Daphne allow their human cohabitants to come within 10 feet of them, the freshmen said. They have no problems chowing down on a tasty walnut or piece of trash they’ve rummaged from a garbage can.

But squirrels like Harry and Daphne are not exactly given the same degree of freedom as their human neighbors. They’re forced to comply with university policy, which keeps them out of the buildings, a rule enforced by Facilities Management’s Squirrel Eradication Patrol.

“Actually, we prefer to call our efforts ‘re-education and relocation’ of squirrels,” SEP member Rod Gregor said. For several years, Gregor has worked to keep squirrels out of the university’s buildings. As winter approaches, Gregor said time is critical.

“The older residential buildings on Sheridan are prime targets (for squirrel nests),” he said.

Squirrels have been known to infiltrate campus buildings, as an insurgent cadre did over Winter Break 1999. The trespassers made their way into Sargent Hall and Theta Chi, raiding and defecating in the rooms of several students.

Gregor ensures that the squirrels eventually are relocated peacefully, and that few if any injuries are ever sustained. The squirrels are smarter than they seem, he said.

“After dealing with the squirrels for a number of years, when I’d walk into an area, like a quad or something, the squirrels would start barking,” Gregor said. “People would look around to see what the commotion was; it was apparently my presence. They must have developed some atavistic, genetic memory to recognize me as the enemy.”

In Gotshall’s opinion, only those schools that go as far as murdering the squirrels are truly hostile. Gottshall said feeding squirrels extends their lives and that haze nuts are their favorite delicacy.

But, he added: “They don’t make good pets.”