Been doing some thinking about squirrels

and especially squirrels as pets.

John Singleton Copley painted his delightful subject, nine-year-old Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, in 1771. You can visit with the imp at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and I often have. Perhaps because I’ll dealing with some especially dark subject matter these days in my professional life, my mind likes to veer when possible toward what’s lighter, wacky, odd. The not-so-lost art of procrastination.

So, squirrels. In your house. Intentionally. It’s not the only image of a pet squirrel in Copley’s art. He also produced this intricate portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson in 1775. 

Note the attention to the luscious details of the sitter’s world, the fabrics, the way the light falls on them, the glint of the metal leash, the glow of the animal’s eye.

These creatures were surely treasured by Copley, who kept a few of his own.

Birds, cat, squirrel. Sweet.

Now, many people around the world take dogs as pets. (Perhaps not so much in Puerto Rico, where strays run abandoned in the streets before being gathered up for eager U.S. families, or in China, where they are too often raised for food.)

Maud’s Ottie, while no longer a puppy, is still the baby of the family.

For some people, just one dog won’t too. Gotta have a couple.

Or a bunch.

Famously, the royal corgis.

I’ve always loved the shot of a young Edith Wharton, who so loved her little companions.

Dogs have such soft brows and muzzles. Oliver.

So snuggle-able. A puppy so young it doesn’t yet have a name.

I’ve adored them since as a girl I hugged Shnuffles, she with her bad legs and worse temper.

But I’m distracted. Is this all just an excuse to think about my wonderful dogs of yore? Sugar.

Is distraction the better part of valor? Think that was discretion. In any case, I’ll leave it to another time to write more about dogs.

Cats, I find, hold less interest for me than they once did. I know that’s sacrilege on social media. Even exceptional specimens like the one my friend Josefa cares for.

Again I digress. Squirrels, now. When did someone think of domesticating a squirrel? And why? Benjamin Franklin wrote an tribute to a pet squirrel killed by a dog: “Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!”

By his time, squirrel ownership was faddish. Squirrels could be wild caught or sold in markets and, by the 1800s, you could buy one in a pet shop. How much is that squirrel in the window? The one with the waggely tail? Rich families bragged about them. Again, Copley. John Bee Holmes.

Copley’s masterpiece was surely Boy with a Squirrel,  in 1765, a portrait of the artist’s half-brother, Henry Pelham. See the lavish vanilla vest, the pink satin collar, the brilliant cuffs, their ruffles, the perfect glass of water, the light and shadow? What an ear.

This was a flying squirrel, one of a tribe of 50 specie in the family Sciuridae, which are not in fact capable of flight in the same way as birds or bats, but are able to glide from one tree to the next with the aid of a patagium, the furred parachute-like skin membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. A long tail provides additional stability.

It seems funny now, but keeping squirrels as pets was commonplace through to the twentieth century. Before the family canine, the family squirrel. Here we have the Ridgely brothers in 1862, Howard and his younger brother Otho, the children of a wealthy landowning family in Maryland.

Back in around 1526, squirrel owning was significantly less democratic. Hans Holbein the Younger set a precedent with his Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

Oil on oak, it shows in addition to the lovely nibbling squirrel a bird perched on a grape vine, its beak pointing at the right ear of Anne Lovell, wife of Sir Francis Lovell, an Esquire of the Body to Henry VIII.  The grape, natch, represented abundance and wealth. As did the squirrel?

William Butler Yeats wrote in To A Squirrel At Kyle-Na-No:

Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.

People have often taken monkeys, too, as pets and occasional business partners.

In the heyday of organ grinders, it is said, around the turn of the 20th century, nearly one in 20 Italian men in the gritty Five Points neighborhood of New York City were out there with their capuchin monkeys. They only disappeared when long-time New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned the practice in 1936. He refused to renew the grinders’ licenses, saying that radio and outdoor concerts had rendered them unnecessary and with the intention of discouraging street begging. Historians suspect that La Guardia might also have wanted to discourage stereotypes about Italian immigrants (his sensitivity on the subject probably shaped by his experience putting himself through night law school by working days as an Ellis Island translator – the man supposedly spoke five languages).

Wild animals such as squirrels probably have no place in the urban jungle in any case. Court is a different matter.

Scholars have just discovered what is thought to be the first depiction of a pet guinea pig. In it, three Elizabethan children pose with their a cream, brown and white pet. “We know that guinea pigs were introduced into Europe by traders and were kept as exotic pets,” says a National Gallery spokesperson. “While archaeological finds for domestic guinea pigs in Europe are rare, a partial skeleton of one that dates from c.1575 was discovered at Hill Hall in Essex, an Elizabethan manor house.”

Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet – he talked about how the bird camped in his stable, “generally on horseback.” In more recent news, my friend Cheryl likes nothing better than to cuddle her bearded dragon against her chest.

I myself might prefer a hedgehog. Or a tapir.

Or a peacock.

A group of peacocks, by the way, is called an “ostentation” or a “muster.” In ancient Rome, rich folks served peafowl as a delicacy. Today, peacock pets are said to be affectionate, though noisy, eating out of their owners’ hands and even coming to sit on their laps. They are good at fighting snakes, too.

None of the above, I’m pretty sure, are legal to adopt in New York State. The law here clearly states that you may not own any wild animal, defined as a non-domestic feline or canine or hybrid, bear, crocodile, venomous reptile, or primate. You can be fined 500 dollars if you break the law. It’s different in Oklahoma, whose residents need only a permit to own a ferret, any primate or a coatimundi. Oregon lets you have alpacas, ferrets, bison, camels, chinchillas, emus, ostriches, llamas, lemurs, sugar gliders, and giraffes. (Not wise probably to have all at one, at least not in the same pen.) In Arkansas, you can own up to six captive-bred bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, or squirrels without a permit.

But then you’d have to live in Arkansas.

Did you know that hedgehogs are the new squirrel?

I hear they’re legal in Connecticut.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

4 responses to “Been doing some thinking about squirrels

  1. This is wonderful! You’ve brightened my day. Thank you.

  2. Love squirrel alley — right down the street from me on Maple Avenue. Yes, the squirrels in our back yard are a nuisance, but I like to watch them trying to figure out where to dig up those treats they hid last year!

  3. Gil Reavill

    You getting pretty squirrelly, girl! Really great. Was waiting throughout for you to get around to Judy Cho’s story


  4. Peter ahobart

    Our backyard squirrels have dispatched two cotton hammocks which gave me such peaceful afternoons. Love them but I think our bronze statue is more compatible. Just like the one @Squirrel alley in hoh!

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