Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Black Squirrels in Arlington - Blame (or Thank) Canada

This past Shabbat, as I was walking home from shul with a relative newcomer to the area, we saw a black squirrel. I started to relay a story that my Brother had recently told me about their origin, but quickly realized I verify what the heck I was saying before I started spreading it as fact. So here's what we know about black squirrels in the area:

In a nutshell: Where did Washington’s black squirrels come from?

They came from Canada, specifically from Rondeau Provincial Park, a peninsula in Morpeth, Ontario, that juts like a uvula into Lake Erie.

The first batch of black squirrels — eight in number — was sent to the National Zoo in 1902 by Thomas W. Gibson, Ontario’s superintendent for parks. Smithsonian secretary Samuel P. Langley, in his report to Congress that year, wrote that the squirrels were accepted “in exchange,” and, indeed, checking Canadian records, Answer Man discovered that Rondeau park received an unspecified number of gray squirrels from the Smithsonian. (They are “doing nicely,” reported park caretaker Isaac Gardiner.)

We also know that the squirrels were released into the "northwestern part of the zoo."

The juicy bits of the story appear be lost to history. Mainly: was the exchange done for scientific reasons, or was it pure hubris? And was the introduction intended to spread outside the zoo, or was that an oops?

In the end, the National Zoo got lucky. The squirrels do well here, living in peace with their gray neighbors and haven't upset the ecosystem in a significant way.

But that's not something we should take for granted. Lest we forget the lesson of Thomas Austin who in 1859 wrote this off hand comment about another fluffy creature he thought would be a good idea to introduce into his neighborhood:

"The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."

And thus started Australia's famous Rabbit outbreak. By 1900 the rabbits had reached plague proportions, with the country scrambling to figure out how to contain the problem. One novel (ridiculous?) solution: build the world's longest rabbit fence (yeah, this failed). In the end, biological warfare did the trick, with the myxomatosis virus being strategically used to wipe out 99.98% of the rabbit population (without harming humans or other species - wow!).

So yeah, the National Zoo got lucky. Let's not try that trick again.

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