By Sabina Mollot
On the heels of Stuyvesant Town’s management appealing to tenants for suggestions on ways to prevent squirrels from attacking their children, the overseers of Madison Square Park have appealed to community residents with a plea to stop feeding the park’s squirrels.
In a blog post published on the conservancy’s website on Tuesday, August 21, the conservancy told feeders their actions are doing more harm than good, by getting squirrels used to a free food source that disappears in the winter.
Additionally, according to a conservancy spokeswoman, as a result of all the feeding, squirrels have been multiplying more, and due to competition for food and resources, have taken to gnawing on tree branches, damaging the park’s dense tree canopy. Humans have also been getting pestered more, as recently noted in this newspaper by Town & Village associate editor Maria Rocha-Buschel, who was recently poked — twice — on the shoulder by a pushy squirrel as she sat on a park bench.
On its site, the conservancy also wrote that the result of feeding by humans is “increased competitiveness, aggression, and willingness to attack. Squirrels have even been known to rob park staff and visitors of food.
“To many, the squirrels’ bold behavior may be comical or endearing, and it is natural that they would spark ours — or our children’s — curiosity, but it is important to consider their impact on the park, as well,” the conservancy said. “Our seven-acres of green space can only accommodate so many squirrels, but the more people feed them, the more crowds are drawn to overwhelm the feeder and subsequently, our arboretum. Increased populations of squirrels mean increased harm to our world-class horticulture, as squirrels have a habit of damaging trees and plants through persistent gnawing.”
This gnawing has meant gardeners have had to saw off tree branches that were otherwise healthy but became so damaged by squirrel chompers that they posed a falling risk to the public.
Additionally, the squirrels too, may have already suffered, since, according to the conservancy, some of the foods they have been getting fed, including peanuts, could potentially kill them.
Peanuts, the conservancy said, “pose a large danger to their well-being and are unnatural to their diets due to the fact that they are not tree nuts, but legumes. Squirrels may love them, but peanuts often contain salt and other properties that contribute to severe malnutrition in rodents, which can prove fatal. It is in everyone’s best interest that we allow them to feed themselves.”
On Monday at lunchtime, a Town & Village reporter spoke with a few park goers about squirrels, although none said they thought the resident rodents were aggressive beggars.
At one point, a squirrel hopped onto the top of a bench inches away from where Mary Aquino, a neighborhood resident, was sitting across from her son’s stroller.
She didn’t appear bothered by this, though, and when told of the conservancy’s news of tree damage and recent scratch incidents in Stuyvesant Town, she seemed skeptical.
“Squirrels do not attack kids. Squirrels are not dangerous,” said Aquino. She also doubted they damaged the park’s trees. “Squirrels weigh like five ounces. That would be like me saying my roof is falling because of the squirrels.”
Aquino, a Florida native who recently moved to New York City, added, “The squirrels are doing nothing wrong. I’m pro-animal. If a dog accidentally scratched your kid, would you put it to sleep? The squirrels eat acorns, so they keep the ground clean. Every animal has a purpose.”
Asked if she thought people should feed the park’s squirrels, Aquino answered, “People are going to feed them regardless. You’re going to start handing out tickets?”
Mary, a trainer who lives in Staten Island but often comes to the park between appointments with clients at a nearby studio, said she’s surprised anyone would think the squirrels are a problem.
“They’re friendly,” she said. “Where I live they run if they see you coming. They don’t want to be bothered by humans.”
However, she added, she doesn’t ever feed them. “I don’t want them around me,” she said with a shrug, and the squirrels seem to have gotten the memo in her experience.
Ann Harms, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, who was visiting the city, said she noticed that the park’s squirrels were bigger than those she sees at home. However, there are many of them where she lives, too, including in her yard, and some of her neighbors have had squirrels make nests in their attics, prompting calls to the exterminator.
Harms added that she doesn’t feed squirrels and doesn’t believe they need to be fed — in New York or anywhere.
“They find plenty of food, like acorns,” she said. “They have berries on bushes. Just from acorns, and people dropping food, I don’t feel like it would hurt them not to feed them. If they were starving, I would feed them, but they’re not.”