Wood's only fear was "that the small boys would annoy the animals, and perhaps kill them before they have a chance to propagate." Woods called on the public to aid in protecting the animals from the more vicious children. One can envision Elliot Wood's gravestone inscribed with the words: "Great Squirrel Liberator." But that's not the case.
"In a comparatively short time," The Post continued, "the animals will multiply and become a source of amusement to the numerous children who run and play on the grass under the trees."
But how is it possible that, at that time, squirrels roamed Virginia but not right across the Potomac, in Washington? A 2008 feature in The Post claims the native squirrel population had been wiped out due to hunting. But I wanted to confirm with an expert.
John L. Koprowski is a professor at the University of Arizona. I found him via Wikipedia, where he is identified as a "leading expert on the ecology and conservation of squirrels." And my confidence in his expertise was assured when I discovered that his email address included the word "squirrel."
"Pretty amazing critters," he wrote to me from China. He thinks urban development was partially to blame for the silence of the squirrels. "Eastern gray squirrels prefer relatively closed forest and don't typically do well in very open forests, such as prairie edges or urban areas that have been cleared," he wrote. "I would hazard a guess that the trees of the Capitol area were cleared and young (not producing much seed); thus, it was a suboptimal habitat."
During that time, he informs me, "great squirrel migrations were common" as forests were cleared. But fondness for the little beast had not waned. "Such augmentations and translocations were incredibly common during the 1800s and 1900s as many wanted to bring a bit of home with them."
Whatever the reason for the great squirrel dearth, it appears Wood's campaign worked. In 1903, the mall was teeming with squirrels, so much so that concerns grew there would not be enough shelter for them in the cold winter months (never mind the fact that squirrels are hardy enough to shrug off the cold). A concerned Treasury Department employee wrote Woods: "It may not have occurred to you that my little friends the squirrels in the Capitol grounds may possibly be short of houses for the approaching winter," the letter reads. "They have increased considerably in number, and may suffer if they are not provided for."
Not everyone in the District was happy with the change in fauna, however. "It is a fact that the squirrels in the Capitol grounds, while somewhat amusing, are nevertheless a nuisance in several respects," a resident named H.B. Dodges wrote. Aside from the squirrels' habit of driving birds away, "by robbing their nests," the rodents had reportedly been stealing nuts from the homeowner's walnut tree. "They are about the place nearly every day and on Thanksgiving Day, one of them sat on my porch railing and looked at me as I sat at my desk, as imprudent as anything could be, as much as to say, how can you help yourself! I don't want to kill or injure them, but I must protest myself in some way." Or, as we would say today, Dodges felt that the squirrel was indicating the homeowner should "come at me, bro."