Squirrels at NU: Are they nuts?

Brian Rosenthal

Beth Gottesman was biking to class when she spotted a pair of squirrels engaged in battle on the sidewalk in front of her. The Weinberg junior swerved, barely avoiding running them over.

Experiences such as Gottesman’s are common on campus, where some students claim “Northwestern squirrels” are more fierce than normal squirrels.

“Squirrels are more aggressive here,” said Weinberg sophomore Luke J. Adams. “(Back home in Peoria, Ill.), I couldn’t get within 20 feet of the squirrels, but these ones will, like, run between my legs.”

Neurobiology professor Teresa Horton, who is, according to another NU professor, “the closest NU has to a squirrel expert,” said despite popular belief, squirrels at NU are no different than squirrels anywhere else. In fact, her Animal Behavior course has studied the relationship between squirrels and students on campus. Specifically, Horton’s students studied squirrel aggression.

“They did a very careful study of watching sidewalks on campus, looking for squirrel-on-human aggression,” she said. “After 10 hours over two weeks, they found no examples of that, although there was some evidence of human-on-squirrel aggression.”

Regardless, students said they believe NU’s squirrels are friskier than others, and many have personal squirrel stories.

“Oh, I’ve had a couple run-ins with the squirrels,” Adams said.

Adams, a member of NU’s ROTC, said a squirrel has been breaking into his unit’s basement, gnawing at bags of chips.

“We’re tracking the squirrel’s activity,” he said. “Our main mission is to find where he’s coming in.”

McCormick junior Cheng Zhang said the squirrels are amusing, not annoying.

“I saw one squirrel just hanging out on a bike seat about a month ago,” Zhang said. “He was just chilling, having a good time.”

Squirrel enthusiast Gregg Bassett, who lives in Elmhurst, Ill., and is president of the international Squirrel Lover’s Club, said the animals probably look to NU students for food and handouts.

“Squirrels are pretty quick to catch on,” he said. “It gets to where squirrels look at humans as walking vending machines, vending machines that they don’t have to put any money in.”

Because of this, students sometimes have close interactions with squirrels.

Weinberg freshman Lauren Puetz said a squirrel ran into her roommate while she was walking on campus.

“I don’t think it was a purposeful attack, although you never know, they could be starting a squirrel army,” she said.

Weinberg senior Gina Kuhn said she remembers the day during freshman year when a squirrel ran underneath her bike. The rodent, caught under her tires, caused Kuhn to swerve and fall into a bush.

“I don’t know what was wrong with that guy,” she said. “It’s kind of frightening.”

Students said they were surprised by the prevalence of black squirrels on campus.

“My parents were here one weekend, and my mother was really scared by the black squirrels,” said McCormick senior Kourtney Baltzer. “She said they’re probably doing some experiments on them or something.”

Both Horton and Bassett said the black squirrels are simply a “color morph” of the more common squirrel breed on campus, the Eastern Gray Squirrel.

“I used to be at another university that had black squirrels,” Horton said. “They always end up with the reputation of being more dangerous or more aggressive. At various times students have done different studies, and they don’t seem to be.”

Horton said NU’s campus also contains Eastern chipmunks, fox squirrels and flying squirrels, which only come out at night.

“Students need to learn to appreciate wildlife on campus. It’s a very neat campus, with lots of interesting animals,” Horton said. “Be nice to the squirrels, they’re going to live here longer than you will.”

Reach Brian Rosenthal at [email protected]