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University squirrels and where to find them

Students recount their experiences with U.Va.'s outgoing squirrel population

The University's squirrel population — documented on Twitter and personified in a children's book written by two University alumni last year — is a source of continued amusement, ire and fear for students walking around Grounds.

Fourth-year Nursing student Renee Redman said a squirrel ran into her Lawn room during a rainstorm Tuesday night.

Redman said both a squirrel and a chipmunk have entered on different occasions.

“This guy [the squirrel] was trying to escape the rain,” she said. “He came in and hid behind my door — there was six of us in here hanging out, and so we went outside and screamed for help. He got really scared and ended up running into the radiator and got trapped.”

Redman said the squirrel showed no sign of budging.

“We tried leaving a nice trail of popcorn to get it out, but that didn’t work,” Redman said. “At the end of the day, we called animal control. They came, got him mad and chased him out.”

In some cases, people have been attacked by squirrels. Third-year College student Katie Vance said one of her friends was attacked by a squirrel this year.

“It jumped out of a trashcan at her,” Vance said. “They’re very aggressive.”

There are even particular squirrels around Grounds who have developed a reputation among students. Redman said there is a specific squirrel on the Lawn who is known for being too friendly with Lawn residents.

“Last year’s Lawn people named him,” she said. “It’s a constant threat for all the [residents] that this squirrel will get a little too close.”

Second-year College student Miranda Gerrard said a notable squirrel near Dillard dorms became known as a “pirate squirrel” last year.

“Apparently he has an eyepatch — he has this huge white ring around his eye,” she said. “He was all the buzz last year, but he might be gone now.”

First-year College student Emilie Hodge said the University's squirrels seem relatively unfazed by the student population.

“I did have one squirrel encounter with a trash can,” Hodge said. “It was going through the lid and out the side and bottom. I went over to look at it, and he was not afraid of me at all. It almost let me touch it.”

The University’s more urban environment may be contributing to the odd behavior of squirrels around Grounds.

University of Pennsylvania professor Etienne Benson, who has studied the changing behavior of squirrels, said squirrels in urban environments are learning that aggressive behavior can have high rewards.

“They’ve learned that [being aggressive] is the way to get food,” he said. “The chance of them getting hurt [by humans] is small.”

Benson said squirrels in urban environments will often be found around trash cans, and are known to go up to people eating in hopes of receiving food.

“The behavior of squirrels is dependent on the social situation and what their relationship with humans is like,” he said. “If squirrels were treated differently, they would respond differently.”

Benson said squirrels have not always had a major presence in urban areas, and were only introduced to cities in the late 19th century.

“It’s 150 years after squirrels have been introduced to cities, and they’ve adapted,” he said. “The city has been remade to make it a good squirrel habitat.”

Not all students think the University's squirrel population act strangely — first-year College student Jack Brake said he has not noticed any odd behavior.

“They haven’t been too exciting,” he said.

Hodge, however, said she's keeping an eye on their behavior for the time being.

“They’ve got this little mischievous look,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a mass squirrel rebellion in the near future.”