In honor of President’s Day, let’s look back at a relatively unknown and pretty hilarious chapter of American history. I’m talking about the pet squirrel craze that swept colonial America. Everyone who was anyone, including the founding fathers, had a pet squirrel or was friends with someone who did.
I first learned about this phenomenon and the connection with the founding fathers through Philadelphia’s Once Upon a Nation Storytelling Benches. The story teller shared that colonial families started keeping squirrels because their small size made them perfect for children and they were not too hard to take care of.
In her article in Atlas Obscura, Natalie Zarrelli noted: “By the 1700s, a golden era of squirrel ownership was in full swing.” Our storyteller reinforced this notion, describing that many wealthy families proudly had pet squirrels. Given the expensive taste of their owners, little squirrels routinely found themselves wearing beautiful, custom-made jewelry such as golden chain leashes. It was also quite common for parents to have their children’s portrait painted with the pet squirrel. The artists and craftsmen of the time were likely delighted by this trend since it kept them with a steady stream of work.
So what does this have to do with the founding fathers? The most direct connection we know of between them and pet squirrels is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had a fondness for squirrels and in 1772, when he was living in England on one of his many diplomatic missions abroad, he asked his wife to send him several gray squirrels he could give as gifts to his favorite family there. Georgiana, one of the children, was thrilled to receive a pet squirrel and affectionately named him Mungo. Sadly, Mungo met an untimely end courtesy of a hungry dog named Ranger. Upon hearing about his death, Franklin wrote to Georgiana, expressing his shared grief at the loss of her pet.
His letter begins: “I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate End of poor Mungo: Few Squirrels were better accomplish’d; for he had had a good Education, had travell’d far, and seen much of the World.” Franklin proceeds to launch into a poem memorializing Mungo, which starts off focusing on the happy little squirrel but then shifts to how the squirrel’s longing for freedom was his undoing:
But, discontented, thou wouldst have more Freedom.
Too soon, alas! didst thou obtain it,
Fell by the merciless Fangs,
Of wanton, cruel Ranger.
Learn hence, ye who blindly wish more Liberty,
Whether Subjects, Sons, Squirrels or Daughters,
That apparent Restraint may be real Protection,
Yielding Peace, Plenty, and Security.
The full letter, which includes the poem, is available to read via the National Archives’ Founders Online site.
Given the popularity of squirrels as pets, other founding fathers also likely had them in their homes or had friends who did. Our storyteller mentioned that Franklin Square later became the first place where squirrels were introduced into a city park and then other cities followed suit (writer Adam Clark Estes notes this was in the mid-1800s). Now you know who we have to thank/hate for the reason there are so many squirrels in city parks.
Over time, the popularity of cats and dogs as pets meant that squirrels fell out of favor. According to the Presidential Pet Museum, Presidents Warren G. Harding and Harry S. Truman each had a pet squirrel (ironically, both were named Pete) and since then, it’s been Presidential pooches. Wildlife conservationists point out that squirrels are still wild animals and therefore, should not be kept as pets.
We know it won’t and shouldn’t happen but in these polarized political times, perhaps we can agree on one thing. How funny would it be to see a Presidential pet squirrel frolicking on the White House lawn?