Gray squirrels went, saw, conquered England

There’s a war brewing in England, and everyone seems to be on the side of the reds.

No, it (thankfully) isn’t “V for Vendetta” come to life. Instead, it refers to the desperate battle to save England’s endangered red squirrel.

Strolling through Old Campus, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine squirrels being unable to adapt to an urban environment. Are these red squirrels too busy saying “’ello” to one another to notice the ample amounts of food available to them? No, they are being driven to extinction by an American invasion.

The North American gray squirrel was brought to England to entertain the rich in the 19th century. However, over the course of the century the novelty of a squirrel in a cage wore thin, and they were eventually released into the wild.

Once introduced to the wild, the squirrels proceeded to, ahem, kick some tail. It seems that the gray squirrel is just better than the red at “squirreling.” Now with roughly two million gray squirrels encroaching on the last 150,000 red squirrels, common Englishmen and their lords are taking action.

The English government proposes to set up red squirrel reserves where they have not yet been driven off by the grays. There, the squirrels will be able to live out their days, eventually opening casinos for the grays to come and “pick up the gray squirrel’s burden.” However, the reds have to fear contamination from the grays, who carry squirrelpox to which the reds have no immunity. It is hard to imagine a greater irony than for the greatest colonial power to have its own indigenous population wiped out by a more advanced outsider. Karma apparently has no pity for cute red squirrels.

Beatrix Potter followed the success of her stories of the great red squirrel hero, Squirrel Nutkin, with another book about a gray squirrel named Timmy Tiptoes who never achieved quite the same fame. The English just don’t like the invading grays. The English Lord Redesdale has personally made it his quest to save the red squirrel by organizing gray squirrel kill teams. That’s right. Imagine setting up traps all around the old campus to catch the squirrels and then putting a bullet in each of their heads.

But there’s even worse news for those of you who just cringed to bemoan the fate of those squirrels. Squirrels are members of the rodent family, which makes them cute, if chubby, rats. Did all of those squirrels on the Old Campus get so plump by eating Yale Sustainable Food Project acorns? No, they got fat from the nearby garbage cans and dumpsters. Squirrels, while lovable, are part of nature’s great trash removal team alongside rats and crows. So what if we trapped all of the rats on Old Campus and then shot all of them? I can already hear the cheering from LC all the way over here in Branford. Furthermore …

At this point in the article, I was planning to call for them to be treated as the rodents they are. But do I really want Timmy Tiptoes dead?

I really can’t bring myself to believe that the adorable squirrels are just rats with bushier tails. With the exception of the squirrel who got into my friend’s fourth-floor room to make a meal of his jack-o-lantern last year, squirrels respect our space in a way that seems to elude rats and mice.

We are at a juncture at which one species of squirrel is being shot to protect another species of squirrel because of the aesthetic tastes of the traditional Englishman. And let’s not forget that less than 100 years ago the red squirrels were being killed by the thousands because they were fond of scraping bark from trees. To me, this sounds like needless intervention into the squirrel market. As a senior economics major, I have no choice to but to conclude that competition in the squirrel market is healthy. It will only result in better squirrels.

The squirrel market will find its own equilibrium in the long run, just like so many other species. I have faith that evolution will run its course, which may result in slightly less cute squirrels. However, the more durable grays will be better suited to live in a world where global warming will raise the temperature by two degrees in the next century, so we should actually thank them for keeping the blood of the red squirrels off of our industrialized hands.

Brian C. Thompson is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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