14 Legends About Cats From Around the World

It’s not just the internet that’s obsessed with cats. Since time immemorial, civilizations across the world have been devising myths about these curious creatures, ranging from superstitions about their supposed luckiness to stories of them playing fiddles, hanging out in cradles, or sailing the sea with owls in pea-green boats. Cats pop up in many religions as well, as both angelic and devilish figures. Whether the tales are true or not (they’re not), here are some of the more curious beliefs different cultures have held about felines throughout history.

1. THEY’LL STEAL YOUR BABY’S BREATH.

For centuries, folks in England believed that a cat is liable to climb into an infant’s crib and “suck” the child’s breath until it suffocates and dies. (In some versions of the tale, the cat is jealous because the newborn infant has suddenly deprived it of attention; other versions say it’s not jealousy but the scent of milk on the baby’s lips that inspires them.) In 1791, a jury at a coroner’s inquest in Plymouth, England, found a cat guilty of infanticide in this way. This has been a persistent myth that followed emigrants to the New World; in 1929, the Nebraska State Journal printed an alleged report from a doctor who said he’d witnessed a housecat “lying on the baby’s breast, a paw on either side of the babe’s mouth, the cat’s lips pressing those of the child and the infant’s face as pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death.” 

2. THEY’LL EAT YOU FOR CHRISTMAS DINNER.

Getty Images

Iceland, for all of its twee elven aesthetic and excellent quality of living, has some pretty savage Christmas stories. It seems that Íslendingar grow up in fear of the ferocious Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, who prowls the frozen countryside around Christmastime, looking for humans to eat. But this giant, bloodthirsty cat-monster isn’t looking to make naughty children into his meal, as you might expect. He’s got an eye for fashion and is looking for people—kids, adults, whatever—who aren’t wearing fine new clothes for Christmas Eve. (Farmers tell this tale to their workers as an incentive to finish processing wool before autumn comes, so everyone can get their new clothes made before the slob-eating Christmas Cat shows up.) This very weird fable sounds like something from the Viking Age, but it isn’t really that old—it first appeared in print in the 19th century and wasn’t popularized (in poem form, in true Icelandic style) until the early 20th.

3. THEY CAUSED THE BLACK DEATH.

In the Middle Ages, cats were commonly thought of as sinister beasts with basically the same powers as witches and warlocks, obviously in cahoots with Satan. A cat’s bite was poisonous, as was its flesh, and if you breathed its breath, you’d be infected with consumption (also known as tuberculosis). They could also make your beer go sour if they felt like it. As such, when bubonic plague swept the European continent in the 14th century, killing up to 60% of the population in some regions, it was naturally assumed that the Devil was responsible, and his handiwork was attributed directly to his feline minions. Tremendous numbers of cats—especially black ones—were destroyed during this wave of the plague, and sometimes their owners along with them. (To be fair, snakes were also blamed and destroyed as well.) This was ill-advised, of course, because the real distributor of the plague was the Oriental flea, which lives on rats, and with dramatically fewer cats (and snakes) to keep their numbers in check, the rat (although some say it was a gerbil) population in Europe soared … as did the plague.

4. THEY’RE LUCKY, BUT ONLY IN CERTAIN COLORS, AMOUNTS OF TOES, AND LEVELS OF CUTENESS.

Getty Images

The Japanese believe that cats are lucky, but there are a lot of qualifiers. The maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) is an iconic Japanese talisman that, it’s believed, brings good fortune to its owner, usually in the form of cash. One legend explains that a Japanese cat once waved a paw to beckon a lord into a house, which saved him from being struck by lightning a moment later, and so a cat who beckons with her paw is considered a lucky gesture. Tortoiseshell cats are also considered lucky in Japan, especially the rare male ones.

A Buddhist belief says a cat with a dark coat brings promises of gold, while a light-colored cat brings silver. In Russia, Russian Blue cats are considered lucky. Many cultures think that a polydactyl cat (one with extra toes) is a good-luck charm, and it’s said that early sailors who sojourned to America routinely brought many-toed cats with them to ensure safe travels, which is why there’s still an influx of polydactyl cats in New England today. Finally, in China, the older and gnarlier a cat gets, the luckier it's said to become.

5. THEY’RE SCORNED WOMEN IN DISGUISE WHO LIKE TO FEAST UPON NEWBORN BABIES.

This one comes to you from the Bible. As you may know, Adam’s sassy, insubordinate ex-wife, Lilith, is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah, referencing a much-older demonic figure from Hebrew folklore who likes to eat babies. But did you know she could also turn into a cat? According to some Sephardic Jews, Lilith was also known as El Broosha, a demon who eats babies and takes a giant, black, polymorphous, cat-shaped form. She likes newborns best and stalks them in the night, draining them of every drop of blood, vampire-style. She sometimes shows up in folklore as a screech owl too. 

6. THEY’RE BASICALLY LIVING URNS FOR HUMAN SOULS.

A certain sect of Buddhism once practiced in the former kingdoms of Siam and Burma believed that when you die, if you’re holy enough, your soul is transferred to a cat for safekeeping. In this way, special souls lived in a sort of feline purgatory, and when the kitty died, the chaste soul would ascend to paradise. The sect obviously holds cats in high regard, depicting sleeping cats at the feet of Buddha statues. Although Siam is now called Thailand, a ritual that’s still strictly observed during the coronation of a new Thai king is to present him with a live cat adorned in gold jewelry. (A Siamese one, of course.) In this way, it’s thought, the spirit of the old king is able to witness the coronation, through the cat’s eyes. A gold-trimmed cat was present at the crowning of the current Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 1950.

7. THEY HAUNT THE CELTIC COUNTRYSIDE (OR AT LEAST ONE OF THEM DOES).

In ancient Scottish and Irish folklore, an oversized black cat with a trademark white patch on its chest, called the Cat Sìth, skulks around at night looking for souls to steal. At wakes and funerals, to protect the poor deceased’s soul from the wily Cat Sìth, various distractions were supplied to deter or distract it, such as catnip or loud music. A fire was also never burned in a room with a corpse, since every cat loves to curl up by a warm fireplace.

This spectral cat isn’t as huge as some of the others found in folk tales—it’s about the size of a dog—and it’s secretly a witch who can turn into a cat, but she can only do it nine times. (Sound familiar?) Upon the last transformation, she’s stuck in cat format forever. The Cat Sith wasn’t all bad, though. Each year, on the Gaelic festival of Samhain, saucers of milk were left outside houses for her, and she’d bless the houses in return. However, if you didn’t leave a saucer of milk for the sorceress, you’d be cursed and all your cows’ milk would dry up. Seems fair.

8. THEY CAN TALK, CARRY COFFINS, AND FORM A MONARCHY.

Speaking of black cats with white patches: In the British fable The King of the Cats, a sexton digging a grave (in some versions he's just walking down the road) spies a clowder of nine black cats with white spots on their chests, carrying a miniature cat-sized coffin with a crown resting on it. One of the cats tells the man to "Tell Tommy Tildrum that Timmy Toldrum is dead." The astonished man returns home to his wife and relays the news, while their housecat keeps interrupting his story with frantic meows. The couple ignores him, and they continue discussing the strange occurrence, amidst the racket. Finally, at the end, the man asks his wife if she knows who Tommy Tildrum is, so he can tell Tommy that Timmy has died, whereupon the cat cries out in the King’s English: "What? Old Tim dead? Then I'm the King o' the Cats!" At this, the housecat—who is named Old Tom—scrambles up the chimney, never to be seen again. 

9. THEY CAN PREDICT THE WEATHER.

Or, rather, by watching them, you can. It’s said in England that a cat who claws at the curtains or the carpets is predicting windy weather, and the Welsh believed rain was coming when a cat’s pupil broadened. Rain is also foretold if a cat busily washes its ears. As well, if a cat continually looks out a window on any day, rain is on the way, and some say that when a cat sleeps with all four paws tucked under its body, it will rain. A rainstorm is coming if the cat sleeps on its back too. Basically, if a cat does anything, it’s gonna rain.

10. THEY LIVE IN THE SEA AND CAUSE STORMS.

Superstitious fishermen in the British Isles might throw a bit of fish back into the sea “for the cat.” This mythical cat was a woman who “knew more than a Christian should” (a.k.a. a witch) who went sailing with her fiancé, a fisherman. On the voyage, she cursed the whole fleet by calling up a storm to wreck the ship, as revenge upon the crew members who thought it was unlucky to have a woman on board and wanted her to be drowned. She was turned into a four-eyed cat who haunted the ocean, and the fishermen still throw her a morsel of food to appease her, lest she try it again. Many sailors and fishermen also think that if a cat falls overboard, a storm will show up and the ship will be capsized.

11. THEY CAN TRANSFER THEIR FACES TO UNBORN BABIES.

In a few different areas of Europe, it was thought to be ill-advised for a pregnant woman to pick up a cat or let it sleep in her lap. In Portugal, it was once said the cat will afflict the baby with a wart or mole, usually a hairy one, and in England, it was thought the baby will either be born with a cat-shaped birthmark or with the face of a cat. This is sort of not fair, because another English folk tale says that black cats are lucky as a wedding gift, as is a cat (of any color, apparently) who sneezes within earshot of the bride on her wedding day.

12. THEY WORK FOR THE DEVIL.

Getty Images

Medieval people thought that cats were the Devil’s personal soul courier, ferrying spirits to Hell. The three hairs on the tip of a cat’s tail were said to be “the devil’s hairs," which compelled the cat to stay up all night, prowling, when all Christian creatures should be asleep. In the American South, it was thought that anyone who drowned a cat would be punished by the Devil himself (for the lesser crime of kicking a cat, he’d just give you rheumatism). Back in Europe, it was said that kittens born at the end of the blackberry season were especially rambunctious, and that was because when Satan was thrown out of Heaven around the end of summer he landed in the blackberry brambles, so he imbued their kitteny souls with mischief. Early Christians believed that if a cat sat on a grave, the soul of the deceased was possessed by Satan. Also, if two cats were seen fighting on a grave during a funeral or near a dying person, it was believed that they were, in fact, an angel and a devil fighting over that person’s soul—in cat form.

13. THEY ARE CACTI, AND THEY LIKE TO DRINK BOOZE. 

About a century ago, tall tales in the Pueblo and Navajo country in northern Mexico and Arizona described a living, moving, breathing cat-shaped cactus, with needles in place of fur and two sharp blades for forelegs. The cactus cat liked to go around slashing the bases of real cacti with its knife-paws, to let the milky juices collect and ferment into pulque. It would do this to 80 cacti at a time, specifically. Once his work was done, the creature would return to the beginning of the circuit, get drunk on the pulque inside the cacti, then go around causing trouble in the region, swiping at cowboys and leaving telltale red welts.

14. THEY’RE JUST MYSTICAL BEINGS IN GENERAL.

In many cultures, as you might have gathered by now, cats are considered mystic creatures. Egyptians considered them deities, and killing a cat was punishable by death. When a family cat passed on, the whole clan went into mourning. Meanwhile, up north, every Norwegian Forest Cat is supposedly thought to be either a fairy or a goblin in disguise—and the difference can be ascertained if you stare into their eyes. It's said the cat's eyes act as windows to the fairy world (or goblin world, which are possibly the same world), and if you peer through them, you can see visions of the magical realm beyond. 

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

15 Squirrel Facts for Squirrel Appreciation Day

iStock
iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. They can jump really, really far.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
iStock

In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. They're very organized ...

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
iStock

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A 2017 study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. ... But their forgetfulness helps trees grow.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
iStock

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. They help truffles thrive.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
iStock

The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. They're one of the few mammals that can sprint down a tree head-first.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. Several towns compete for the title of "Home of the White Squirrel."

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. They could aid in stroke research.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
iStock

Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. Their fur may have spread leprosy in the Middle Ages.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
iStock

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. They're more powerful than hackers.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. They can heat up their tails to ward off predators.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. They help scientists determine whether a forest is healthy.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. They can lie.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. They used to be America's most popular pet.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. The mere sight of just one squirrel could once attract a crowd.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. In the 19th century, they were tasked with teaching compassion.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

Bonus: They used to hate tax season, too.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER