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On-campus squirrels: Friend or foe?

At any given time on The Plaza, you are typically going to see students braving the cold on the way to class. But the winter chill is also all too familiar to one of Colorado State University’s furry residents: squirrels. 

Although squirrels are active members of campus life, it is important to know what to do when one comes for your lunch. 

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a squirrel in the snow
A squirrel eats in the snow on Nov. 30. Squirrels are a common character on the Colorado State University campus and are commonly fed by students. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

“When humans and wildlife interact, wildlife will adapt if they are being provided with things that they need,” said Matthew Johnston, associate professor of avian, exotic and zoological medicine. “Squirrels are no exception to that.”

Being that squirrels are very social and curious by nature, they have made a connection between humans and food over time as humans have continually provided them with it, wrote Tylor Starr, Larimer Humane Society marketing and community outreach program manager, in an email to The Collegian.

“Where there are humans, there is a greater chance of food,” Starr wrote. “This is especially true of squirrels who live alongside humans in cities like Fort Collins.” 

Though squirrel bites are rare on campus, they can still occur, said Dell Rae Ciaravola, public safety and risk communications manager at CSU. Johnston said squirrel bites can be incited by a perceived threat.

People can watch the squirrels in their natural environment, but Jason Clay, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said everyone should avoid feeding them in general.

“They’re wild and can act unpredictably, so it’s always best that people never try to handle, intervene (or) work with any of the wildlife, no matter the species,” Clay said.

Squirrels are animals who are just trying to exist alongside of us. While they may not be friendly to humans at times, we should always ensure that we are not being cruel to them and that we are treating them respectfully.” -Tylor Starr, Larimer Humane Society marketing and community outreach program manager

Animals’ mouths have bacteria and germs that could cause an infection, Johnston said, so anyone who gets bitten by a squirrel should seek medical attention immediately.

Squirrels are not carriers of many diseases. However, they do carry fleas, which can pose a risk to humans, Clay said. 

“Fleas can harbour diseases,” Clay said. “The fleas can carry diseases, … even the plague. When they jump off and get onto (a person or other animal), it’s always possible that that transmission could be there depending on species.”

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a squirrel jumps along a fence
A squirrel bounds along a fence on Nov. 30. Squirrels are a common character on the Colorado State University campus and are commonly fed by students. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

The problem begins when individuals start providing wildlife with basic needs such as food or shelter, Johnston said. Feeding the squirrels encourages them to get closer and closer to the person. 

“Squirrels started following people inside the buildings,” said James Graham, director of environmental health services at CSU. “They would get up on their desks and take their food. When they can’t get out, they just start running all over the place, pulling things off the walls, knocking things over.”

Graham said squirrels also have the ability to chew through and live in the walls. 

With humans interfering with the natural foraging behaviors of squirrels, the squirrel population tends to grow. When the prey population grows, it is followed by a growth in predators, including owls, hawks, foxes and coyotes, Graham said. 

“Squirrels are animals who are just trying to exist alongside of us,” Starr wrote. “While they may not be friendly to humans at times, we should always ensure that we are not being cruel to them and that we are treating them respectfully.”

Laura Studley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurastudley_.

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