They

Loudin also waxes on their habits, like jumping around a room
and peeping out from wooden eaves . . .
Domestic pets: their habits and management, Jane Loudin, 1851

Like all fashions, preferences in pets vary through time, but agility and cuteness are almost always desirable characteristics, especially among those able and willing to pay for what really is a luxury item. 

[They] were sold in markets and found in the homes of wealthy urban families, and portraits of well-to-do children holding a reserved, polite upper-class [one] attached to a gold chain leash were proudly displayed (some of which are currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Some things, however, don’t change with time. People get attached to pets, you know? Maybe that’s even the defining characteristic: an animal in your home or yard that you’re attached to.

In 1722, [one] named Mungo passed away.
It was a tragedy: Mungo escaped its confines and met its fate at the teeth of a dog.
Benjamin Franklin, friend of the owner,
immortalized [him] (Ed’s note: the pet, not the owner) with a tribute.

Of course, anyone with children has to consider how the pet will fit into the family: Will it be good with kids?

Mourning [their] death wasn’t as uncommon as you might think
when Franklin wrote Mungo’s eulogy;
in the 18th- and 19th centuries, [they] were fixtures in American homes,
especially for children.
(Ed’s note: emphasis added)

For a pet to be really popular, though, ease of upkeep matters.

While colonial Americans kept many types of wild animals as pets,
[they] “were the most popular,”
according to Katherine Grier’s Pets in America, being relatively easy to keep.

Ah, there’s the rub: over the long haul, wild animals will never be as successful at pethood as domesticated animals are.

Today, experts and enthusiasts alike warn that [they] don’t always make ideal pets,
mainly because of their finicky diet, space requirements, and scratchy claws.

Or, if not truly domesticated, then at least corral-able in a cage. Yes, folks, that’s why dogs and cats and rabbits and fish and iguanas and birds and hamsters and turtles and dagnabbed tarantulas have supplanted squirrels as America’s favourite pet.

What? WHAT? Squirrels? Yes, you read that aright.

Most pet squirrels were American Grey Squirrels,
though Red Squirrels and Flying Squirrels also were around,
enchanting the country with their devil-may-care attitudes and fluffy bodies.

Yes, it’s their devil-may-care attitude that enchants me as [they] dig up my tulip bulbs, strip the buds off my magnolia, and gorge on the unripened berries on my service-berry tree before the birds get even a chance at them.

To be fair (as we say these days) (and just as if it that were or should be my objective), maybe I’m sending mixed messages to the squirrels that rampage through my backyard. From their point of view, [they] probably figure that this allegedly squirrel-proof feeder was put there for [them].

2-photo collage sgowing squirrel beating a squirrel-proof feeder

Post-script: Thanks to Barry Jewell for the link to the quotable insights into a little-known part of our history:
When Squirrels Were One of America’s Favorite Pets

14 Comments

  1. John Whitman

    Isabel – roast squirrel was often the main entree for many colonial American meals, so maybe the squirrels they kept as pets were just on reserve for a hard winter. Just saying.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      John! That’s an awful thought. Pets and provender don’t mix. Or maybe that’s just a sign of my food privilege. I’ve never had to catch what I was going to eat, or wonder whether there would be enough.

  2. Barbara Carlson

    How winter camouflaged is that squirrel!

    John enjoyed their company out in the woods as he’s painting — says that they have such personalities even though they look exactly alike. He names each one “Perky Pants” but can tell them apart by their antics. Same with “Cecils”, the chipmunks. Not so much with the bluejays, a loud demanding bird but surprisingly afraid of squirrels.

    I know I’ve posted this before, but the ongoing joy of it for him is worth another note. In return he feeds them (hence their great affection for him, obviously) kilos of peanuts in their shells and unsalted “open” ones. By mistake he threw down a few salted ones the other day. The chipmunk took them — one by one — in his little paws, licked off their salt, and threw them back on the ground.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Maybe John should try BBQ-flavoured ones. I admit I enjoy chipmunks more than squirrels: a preference I can’t begin to justify rationally. (Although I’ve never caught a chipmunk in my magnolia tree, which might be a clue.) But they’re all quite delightful in the wild.

      1. Barbara Carlson

        Salted peanuts of any flavour is a big No-No for little run-around creatures as salt messes with their urinary tracts…and peeing… just so you know. Even if a little salt is probably so tasty to them, like a salty hot-dog is to us.

  3. Tom Watson

    In the part of Southwestern Ontario where I grew up, near the Point Pelee Marsh, the Legions used to have muskrat suppers in the spring. Can’t be that different from squirrel, can it?
    Tom

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Tom: OMG. Having grown up in Alberta, I’d never heard of muskrat dinners. Here’s the Atlas Obscura on that very topic (oddly enough since they were the source of the squirrels-as-pets article): Muskrat Dinners. Something to do (at least originally?) with a workaround to eat meat during Lent . . .

  4. Kate

    Oh, they are so darned cute! I love that picture you took.
    Although, slightly less cute when they set up shop and have babies in your attic, as one did in our house a few years ago. Funny story of how we got them out…. I’ll tell you sometime in person. Involved a squirrel in a closet, and a highway of pillows leading to and out the front door 😉

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