Local animal rescuers share their tips on how
to help the little guys get through the winter
Squirrels frolic in Stuyvesant Town. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Just when everyone thought they were free of the holidays, at least until Valentine’s Day, another one is looming around the corner — this one in celebration of squirrels.
The bushy tailed critters are honored once a year on January 21 with Squirrel Appreciation Day, a holiday that began in 2001 as the pet project of wildlife rehabilitator Christy Hargrove.
Hargrove started the tradition, according to various online reports, on this particular date to draw attention to the animals during a time of year when their food supply starts running out.
Though such a thing might seem unthinkable in a neighborhood like Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, which is home to the most well-fed squirrels on the planet, winter is still a tough time for any animal. So in honor of the holiday, Town & Village spoke this week with three local animal rescuers and rehabilitators, Marilyn Pascarelli of Stuyvesant Town, Kathy Compitus of Peter Cooper and Bernie Goetz, a 14th Street resident, to ask for their tips on how to help squirrels make it through the colder months.
Animal rescuer and City Critters volunteer Marilyn Pascarelli (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Pascarelli)
Pascarelli, a City Critters volunteer who once rescued two baby squirrels that had dropped down from a tree in Stuy Town along with numerous other animals in the area, said she still doesn’t consider herself an expert on squirrels. But after conferring with another more experienced rescuer, she had this to say: Don’t feed the squirrels.
“People shouldn’t really feed them at all,” she said. However, she quickly added that she knew no one was going to pay any attention to that advice, so she wanted to stress that there’s a responsible way to go about feeding them.
One is to not offer peanuts. “If you have to feed them, feed them walnuts, almonds or pecans,” she said. They’re more expensive, she noted, but healthier. Peanuts can cause skin problems, she warned. “You’ll see that they lose fur,” she said.
Additionally, people shouldn’t overfeed them. More than once, Pascarelli said she’s seen squirrels get fed in a particular spot in Stuy Town only to return to the area three hours later to see someone else feeding squirrels in the same place. Those who want to feed the squirrels should try to avoid overfeeding by coordinating spots to do so with other feeders and also by cleaning up any food that doesn’t immediately get eaten. This is especially true if feeders heed her next tip.
Buy dry food intended for pet rats as a supplement to nuts.
“It has a lot of nutrients squirrels need,” she said. Squirrels’ natural diet consists of tree roots, branches and bark, though, “they don’t bother eating roots because they’re waiting for their peanuts.”
Pascarelli added that this time of year is when squirrels tend to get pregnant and in March and April, they have babies. As she’s seen, it isn’t unusual to find an abandoned squirrel if the mother has had too many babies. This could be blamed on overfeeding though. “If you overfeed them, they start to multiply like crazy,” she said.
Meanwhile, Goetz had a differing point of view.
Squirrel rehabilitator Bernie Goetz with a fluffy-tailed friend in Union Square Park (Photo courtesy of Bernie Goetz)
Goetz, an entrepreneur who’s been known as the “subway vigilante” for his shooting of several robbers on a train three decades ago, is better known these days for being an advocate for squirrels.
Though not a licensed rehabilitator, he has nursed over 100 injured squirrels back to health over the years. Usually, they’re brought to Goetz by people who find them around the city or he finds them himself in Union Square Park or in ST/PCV, where he frequently goes to feed the little guys. Usually, he said, when a squirrel is hurt, it’s the result of an attack from another squirrel. However, Goetz did once encounter a squirrel who’d gotten caught in the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
In his view, the squirrels should be fed this time of year, because “there’s no nutrition on the trees, anymore.”
He also doesn’t believe peanuts are a problem, though he knows many rehabilitators have the view that they are.
“What squirrels need in the winter is calories,” he said. “Peanuts are cheap and they have a lot of calories.”
Compitus, who often feeds the birds and squirrels in Peter Cooper Village when not at work at the dog daycare center she owns, Wiggly Pups, echoed Goetz’s sentiment that squirrels need a helping human hand during the winter months. This is especially true in ST/PCV, she said, since squirrels have gotten used to humans providing food for them over a period of decades.
“Squirrels have nests and they find places to keep warm, but it’s hard for them to feed themselves,” she said. “The winters can be so harsh in the city.”
While Compitus agreed with Pascarelli that other nuts are more nutritious for squirrels than peanuts, she also suggested that feeders give squirrels fresh veggies like collard greens and fruit, especially cherries. “They love cherries and they’re great for them,” she said.
Animal rehabilitator and dog daycare center owner Kathy Compitus (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
While Compitus has found herself being scolded by ST/PCV security in the past for feeding the pigeons on the property, she said lately that hasn’t happened. She also said she thought that residents’ feeding of the local wildlife was “what makes Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village so unique.
“You don’t have wildlife on the Upper East Side walking around outside your window, so I think we have to take care of them so that we can continue to enjoy them,” she said.
Meanwhile, a rep for CWCapital didn’t get back to us on what ST/PCV policy currently is when it comes to squirrel feeding, but the truth is it hardly matters. Former owner Met Life had a no-feeding rule, which went completely ignored and Tishman Speyer, when owner, never bothered to say if there was still a rule in place. However, there have been times over the years, including during CW’s reign, when management has indicated that people who leave food out for the squirrels end up attracting rats. This is possible, though judging by the girth of many of the local squirrels, it’s also just as likely that the rats’ fluffy-tailed cousins are in fact managing to eat every treat thrown their way by well-meaning humans.
Fun fact: The squirrels that overrun Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village and have black fur and copper fur as well as the more common gray fur, are all known as Eastern Gray squirrels.