Residents weigh in after complaints of kids bitten
By Sabina Mollot
Anyone who lives in Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper Village — or even anyone who has ever strolled through the grounds once — is well aware of one thing. The property is overrun by a population of the world’s best fed squirrels. Despite the various landlords’ feelings on the matter, many residents have, for decades enjoyed feeding the squirrels, and they in turn have been known to get up close and personal with anyone that might be willing to do so.
Earlier this summer, when a child was bitten by a squirrel in Stuy Town, the complex’s general manager, Rick Hayduk reminded residents in a May newsletter that squirrel feeding is discouraged.
But earlier this month, a Stuyvesant Town mom took to a community Facebook page to warn neighbors that she’d heard of two additional incidents of children getting bitten, and that the local squirrel population appeared to be getting even more aggressive.
The resident, Carolyn Hurley, later told Town & Village, “It’s seriously becoming a problem.”
Partially, she said it has to do with people hand feeding the squirrels nuts and other treats. “So they’re not afraid of people. And the crazy squirrel people say they don’t know the difference between a finger and a peanut. If they don’t know the difference between a finger and a peanut, why would you feed them a peanut from your finger? There’s a difference between throwing them a handful of food and getting them to touch your hand.”
Of the three squirrel biting incidents this summer, Hurley said what she heard on a local Facebook group for parents was that in one case a child was hand feeding a squirrel. In another incident, a child was attempting to throw out a wrapper from a granola bar only to have a squirrel jump out of the garbage bin. In another, a child was simply near someone who was feeding the squirrels.
While biting incidents are rare, the squirrels have more commonly been known to hop into strollers looking for food, and, noted Hurley, they don’t seem to be frightened off by people’s dogs, at least not hers. “In three years, they’ve never come this close to him,” she said. “Stomping used to get rid of them. (Now) that’s not working.” Though she doesn’t feed the squirrels, she was still concerned about her one-year-old son.
Also more aggressive, in her opinion, are the squirrel feeders, who have even begun leaving cat food tins full of water around. Stray peanut shells have also become a frequent sight at playgrounds, which alarmed Hurley due to her own peanut allergies.
“They’re not allowed in schools for a reason,” she said.
In response to her concerns, a Town & Village reporter asked around in Stuy Town to see if anyone else had noticed the bushy-tailed beggars getting any bolder than in previous years.
In response, longtime resident Lorraine Gutfleisch said she had noticed that they’re “very brazen lately. They come up onto the bench.” She, too, blamed the feeders, gesturing to a woman sitting on a nearby bench who was tossing bread crumbs to a pack of eager birds. “To me, it’s a rat with a fluffy tail,” said Gutfleisch. “I try to discourage them.”
Still, she, and some neighbors sitting with her on a bench near the fountain dismissed the recent reports of squirrel bites as an urban legend.
“People tend to exaggerate all situations,” said Bill Whitney. On the squirrels, he added, “They’re tame because people hand feed them. In fact, I read in your newspaper that the wildest plant around here is peanut plants.”
This comment was in reference to a statement made during an interview with Stuyvesant Town’s director of horticulture and landscape, Chuck Hartsell, that was published in 2014. Hartsell had said the weed the grounds crew had to pull the most was the peanut plant. Hartsell had also said that the complex’s oaks, which make up 30 percent of the trees, are acorn producers and provide food for the squirrels.
Connor Finnochio, who lived in Stuyvesant Town for the past year after moving from Florida, said he noticed the squirrels are “more aggressive than Florida squirrels.” But otherwise he said he’s never had a problem with any. “I see them acting aggressively towards each other, but never towards me.”
However, a babysitter working in Stuy Town went as far to say the squirrels were “scary.”
Hannah Weber, after just three weeks on the job minding a baby said once at the Oval she was eating a cookie, and a squirrel “ran up and touched my foot.” But, she also said she’s seen residents and even workers feeding them. “They should put up a sign like at the zoo, ‘Don’t feed the animals.’” Still, Weber added, she’s seen worse in other neighborhoods, like in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens. “The squirrels will go inside the strollers and inside the bags to look for food.”
An East Village resident, Ron Curtis, said he too has seen bolder squirrel scavenging elsewhere.
In Tompkins Square Park, he said, “They’ll crawl up your leg and go into your pockets. I’m serious.” Curtis blamed the people who toss bread, which he believes is the root of the park’s rat problem.
Meanwhile, Steve Karten, a Stuyvesant Town resident for 20 years, said he’s never noticed any aggressive behavior. They’ve jumped in his lap, but that never bothered him.
“You’ve got to get along with your wildlife. Some people can’t even stand the pigeons,” Karten said. He then added, “With all the problems here, that really seems to be the least of it.”
A spokesperson for StuyTown Property Services, Paula Chirhart, said tenants are encouraged to approach public safety if they’ve had any problematic encounters with squirrels and management is aware of the concerns raised on social media. So far no incidents involving squirrel bites have been reported directly to management.
Clarification: Hayduk told T&V that while the public safety department has not received any reports of specific incidents, he was personally contacted by mothers speaking on behalf of others who’d allegedly been bitten. This is what prompted his mention of squirrel feeding in the May newsletter.