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Are Squirrels a First-Year's Friend? Or Are They Only Glorified Rats?

By Geoffrey C. Hsu, Contributing Reporter

There's a war being waged in Harvard Yard.

It's students against nature from Lamont to Canaday, and the enemy--16 to 20 inches long and weighing between 1-1/4 and 1-3/4 pounds--has been known to attack tourists and raid dorms through chimneys.

Sciurus carolinensis (Harvardiensis), the Eastern gray squirrels of Harvard Yard, have developed a reputation for being aggressive, daring and less than hospitable.

"We need to get rid of the vicious ones," says Nick Debnath '96. Debnath says he has seen squirrels bite tourists' legs.

"They don't look like the cute squirrels that you have to entice to come to you," says Ana Markovic '96. "They just jump on you."

Edward S. Ahn '96 says the squirrels throw acorns at him and his friends from trees as he walks through the Yard.

"I think they're very bold," Ahn says. "They want to hurt us."

And first-years forced to share the Yard with the long-tailed rodents are fighting back.

One frustrated first-year student, who asked not to be identified, said he and his roommate try to spit at the Yard's squirrels. The students, who claimed he could spit at pigeons without any problem, said he hasn't been able to hit a squirrel yet, since they are amazingly elusive.

Other students confessed secret desires to see the squirrels chased--or even eaten--by household pets. "The best part about the squirrels is when the dogs chase them," said Amy E. Forker '96.

One sophomore says the squirrels are entertaining, but remembers a particular furry friend as too aggressive.

"I always thought it was rabid," said Barbara J. Brescia '95. "It was really funny, because everyone ran away from it."

Of course, there are those who live dangerously--they actually get close enough to feed these close relatives of the rat.

"I love them," says Hayn Park '96. "I feed them all the time."

Park says the squirrels occasionally eat from his hand, feeding on fruit, bits of bread or "things you stuff in your pocket from the Union." Park hopes the Yard will attract more squirrels, citing feeding's therapeutic effects.

"[Feeding the squirrels] is one of the reasons I'm sane now," says Park. "They're really helpful."

Straus Hall resident Crystal R. Burke '96 says that once a week she sits on the steps of Straus and feeds her furry friends peanuts and cantaloupe.

"It's fun," she says. "It's a good way to meet people. Different people come up to you and ask what you're doing."

But experts caution that squirrels can get accustomed to their feedings--with deleterious side effects. Judy M. Chupasko, a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, blames constant human contact, especially feeding, for the squirrels' aggressive behavior.

"[The squirrels] lose their natural fear," Chupasko says. "They know they're not going to be hurt, and there are no natural predators, so they don't have normal behavior patterns."

Gary D. Alpert, an entomologist and entomology officer at the Environmental Health and Safety Office, agrees. "In general, we want a squirrel to be wary and wild, and not aggressive," he says. "Once we feed them, they become emboldened."

Alpert says he tries to discourage feeding and suggests that students just watch the squirrels from a safe distance, although he says he hasn't heard of any incidents of squirrel bites in the past 12 years.

Chupasko says that another reason students should not feed the squirrels is the potential for rabies.

"It's dangerous," she says. "There's a rabies epidemic spreading around now. Mostly it's in raccoons right now, but it will spread to squirrels sooner or later. You shouldn't feed them unless you've had a rabies vaccine."

But if students won't feed the squirrels, the rodents will usually come and try to the steal their next meal.

According to Alpert, squirrels have been caught climbing down chimneys in search of nesting sites.

"We had a squirrel fall into a chimney of Mass. Hall once when [Derek C.] Bok was president," says Alpert.

To remedy the situation, Alpert's office installed screen mesh chimney caps. Alpert also suggests that students keep the flues of their chimneys closed.

The entomologist says that aggressive squirrels have been known to chew through window screens and to eat apples on students' desks.

But it's a give and take relationship--three weeks ago, a squirrel climbed down someone's chimney, became disoriented and left an apple in the room, Alpert says.

Desperate squirrels have even broken into trash bags and bins. Alpert's office fought back with double-flapped trash bins, but the supposedly squirrel-proof bins weren't much use against the ravenous rodents.

"We found out two weeks ago that a few [bins] have had their flaps ripped off," Alpert says.

And even after they've passed on to squirrels heaven, the rodents can still be pests. Anne Guiney '95 says she was taking pictures in the Yard last year for a photography class when a dead squirrel suddenly fell from a tree nearby and landed with a "big thump."

Guiney says she began laughing hysterically. "It was kind of ridiculous," she says. But later, when three women came across the dead squirrel, they were visibly upset by the tragedy.

Guiney says that the girls gave her dirty looks. "They shouted, `Call the cops! Call security! We've got to let it die in peace.'"

Guiney, who could not stop laughing, says she simply returned to her dorm.

Alpert says that his office has not attempted to control the squirrel population in any way. But if many students succeed in their persecution of the Yard's second-most common species, the Harvard squirrel may go the way of the dinosaur.

"I think the squirrels are fat and lazy," says John E. Stafford '96. "If I brought my cat up here he would gobble them up in a weekend."

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