To feed or not to feed the squirrels

That is one of the questions asked by SPS after another child gets attacked by squirrel in Stuy Town

A squirrel forages for food in a garbage can in this photo taken last year. (Photo by Brian P. Loesch)

By Sabina Mollot

This one’s a hard nut to crack.

After yet another child was injured by a squirrel in Stuyvesant Town (in this case scratched), Blackstone is asking for residents’ thoughts on what to do with the property’s unofficial mascots.

Nearly a year ago, a child was scratched in the face while playing in a Stuy Town playground, and in the more recent incident, another child was scratched. Two summers ago, three different mothers reported that their children were bitten by squirrels. According to Rick Hayduk, general manager of Stuyvesant Town and CEO of StuyTown Property Services, there was another scratch incident this year in April as well.

In the most recent incident, about two weeks ago, Hayduk said the child was behind a playset at Playground 8 near First Avenue, also known as the train playground, when it happened. While the area where the young resident was at the time isn’t seen by a security camera, both parents later told Hayduk that a squirrel had been looking for food inside the child’s stroller. Upon seeing the stroller’s owner, the squirrel jumped out, clawing the child in its bid for freedom. Hayduk said he doesn’t know the child’s gender or where he or she was scratched, but does know that the child was promptly whisked off to a doctor. Asked if the injury was serious, Hayduk indicated he didn’t think it was appropriate to decide if it was or wasn’t, adding, “I don’t want to understate it.”

After Blackstone took over the property, the new owner put signs up in the five children’s playgrounds in ST/PCV, asking residents not to feed the squirrels. Based on the feedback management gets from a survey that was sent out in an email blast on Tuesday, that policy will either remain in place with no further action taken or food could be banned from playgrounds.

“If there’s no food, there’s no reason for a squirrel to be in a playground,” Hayduk said.

Another option is to ban squirrel feeding anywhere in the two complexes. Management will decide what to do after the survey is closed on August 26.

Questions asked in the survey include whether residents have ever felt threatened by the squirrels’ behavior. If they have had any negative incidents and if they have children under 10. Residents are also invited to offer their own suggestions, although Hayduk said he doesn’t believe, should anyone suggest this, that squirrels would (or even could be) rounded up and relocated off the property.

In fact, Hayduk has already explained this to someone who did ask why management hadn’t already removed them. “I said, ‘They’ve been here for 70 years.’” He’s also heard from the squirrel lovers who’ve made it clear there would be pitchforks raised in the Oval should anyone even attempt this.

“I would be extremely surprised if that was a viable option,” said Hayduk. “That would be not paying credence to the history of the community and I’m sure there were (squirrel) incidents in 1960.”

That said, he insisted the top priority for is the safety and comfort of residents. Should residents overwhelmingly choose to ban feeding in some additional fashion, Hayduk said this could be done simply by changing the property’s house rules. However, enforcement is a more complicated matter, unless residents want to tattle on their peanut-throwing neighbors.

“We only have so many public safety officers,” said Hayduk. Additionally, even if an officer is nearby, the only enforcement would be a letter in the mail about a lease violation. “We can’t write summonses, because you’re allowed to feed a squirrel in the City of New York.”

Ultimately, Hayduk warned there would be no way to make everyone happy. “It’s such a divisive issue. Both sides are passionate, the parents and the preservationists.”

Asked for his own opinion on the matter, he said, “My thoughts are right down the middle. I respect the history of this community. Are they getting any more aggressive in 2018 than in 1980? I can’t speak to that, but we have to do everything we can do protect children, whether it’s from wildlife or bad guys.”

While noting that there were no in-depth policies regarding squirrels in the past — Met Life’s no-feeding rule was largely ignored — Hayduk feels that times have simply changed.

“I didn’t have a car seat or a bike helmet,” he said. “I think it’s just a modernization of resident safety. Between social media and improved communication and bicycle helmets and car seats to improve safety, it’s a different day and time.”

Parents of young children who’ve spoken to Town & Village in recent years about squirrels have been overwhelmingly against the feeding of them in Stuyvesant Town, saying it encourages aggressive begging and also because of peanut allergies since toddlers could come into contact with shells left on the ground.

In response to the survey, Katherine Compitus, a Peter Cooper Village resident and wildlife rescuer, told Town & Village she filled it out immediately, and she suggests that management install its own squirrel feeder somewhere on the property out of the way of people. She would also like to see signage reminding residents that squirrels are wild animals. Compitus also said it’s important for parents to make sure their children know not to hand-feed animals. Compitus frequently feeds the birds in the community, in particular pigeons, but notes that she throws the food and never hand feeds. She also feeds the squirrels in the winter (different kinds of nuts and sometimes a snack of cherries or kale).

“I remember when I was a child and my cousin got bitten by a squirrel,” she said. “It was not trying to be aggressive, but she put her hand out to the squirrel and the squirrel took the nuts in her mouth and bit my cousin’s finger, thinking it was a nut. People forget that squirrels are wild animals, because they’re cute and fluffy. You wouldn’t try to feed them from your hand if it was a raccoon or a hawk. Parents should teach (children) to have a respectful distance.”

Compitus and her husband own Wiggly Pups, a dog daycare center in Gramercy, and Compitus has a master’s degree in animal behavior. She also teaches the subject of the animal/human bond as an adjunct professor at New York University.

Susan Steinberg, president of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, agreed with Compitus that hand feeding is a problem — one she’s witnessed many times.

Steinberg, who stressed that she was speaking for herself and not the Tenants Association, added, “They’ve become completely comfortable approaching people for food. And I have seen parents oohing and aahing and taking pictures while their children feed the squirrels (by hand). I’ve seen toddlers reaching out with nuts although they usually drop it before it gets to the squirrels. Parents need to be the first line of defense.”

Steinberg added that she also feared for the well-being of the squirrels.

“I’ve heard that the squirrels in Stuyvesant Town are the fattest in the city,” she said.

3 thoughts on “To feed or not to feed the squirrels

  1. People have to try and coexist wit nature, animals have a right to live here also.
    It is really wrong to feel people are so supreme, they have the right to kill off any animal
    that does not suit them. If this will be the case, what will be left ?
    ( Bees are dying off, frogs, turtles, lions being poached, etc – all by the hands of humans )
    Before any claws come out – squirrels want what any living thing wants – food and shelter.
    These few isolated, by chance incidents are not cause for animal murder.

  2. As far as public nuisances go, hey c’mon, let’s put first things first.

    Keep the squirrels. Get rid of the dogs.

  3. Pingback: Madison Square Park Conservancy begs visitors to stop feeding squirrels | Town & Village

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