When Squirrels Attack

A cautionary tale

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Summertime in Washington, D.C., sometimes seems like an exercise in survival. There are swampy heatwaves in a region where the standard dress-code includes a blazer. And a metro that always seems to be catching fire.

But also: squirrel attacks.

“I was attacked by a squirrel while running this morning so that’s a real thing that happens apparently,” my colleague Adam Serwer told me this morning. He didn’t kill the squirrel with his bare hands, he added, like the Maine jogger who recently drowned a rabid raccoon in a puddle after it bit her.

Adam wasn’t bitten, thankfully. The squirrel leaped onto his chest, then quickly bounded off onto a nearby tree. (“So, basically parkour,” he said.) And it’s actually pretty rare for squirrels to carry rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States,” the agency says on its website. Woodchucks on the other hand, you don’t want to mess with. They accounted for 86 percent of rodent-transmitted rabies cases reported to the CDC over a 10-year period ending in the 1990s. (You probably know this, but just in case: if you get bitten by any animal that’s acting weird, or if you’re bitten by an animal in an area where rabies is widespread, seek emergency treatment right away.)

Because squirrels don’t typically transmit rabies, and because squirrel attacks are unlikely to be fatal, the CDC doesn’t keep data on the frequency of squirrel-on-human attacks. (Besides, if most people’s encounters are anything like what my colleague experienced, they’re unlikely to be reported anyway.)

Between 1999 and 2015, the most recent year for which the CDC has published data, 522 people in the United States were killed by dogs and 1,231 people were killed by other non-human mammals—meaning farm animals, mostly, according to a 2012 study published in the journal of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, including cats, cows, horses, pigs, raccoons, and other hoofed livestock. Another 1,400 people were killed by venomous plants, scorpions, wasps, or bees during that time. “Squirrels aren’t among those listed,” a CDC spokesman told me. “It’s more snakes, spiders, and a few more common things.”

But while there’s no evidence of killer squirrels on the CDC’s books, there is a smattering of anecdotal evidence to suggest they do rumble with humans from time to time. There was, for example, the California squirrel that went on a biting spree—attacking at least eight people last year. And the squirrel that injured three people in a senior center in November. Newspaper archives have plenty of examples of squirrels terrorizing people. A Long Island squirrel—undeterred by a milk bottle thrown in his direction—was eventually shot and killed when he tried to attack some school children in 1921, The New York Times reported that year. That squirrel had gone mad, the newspaper declared.

The fact that squirrels are ubiquitous in cities like New York, Washington, and elsewhere across the U.S. is at least partly by design. The greening movement of the 19th century cast them as a pleasant feature of modern urban life at a time when people sometimes gathered around a single squirrel in Central Park in awe, the way they might react to a black bear in the suburbs of New Jersey today. (New York City still celebrates Squirrel Appreciation Day on January 21, according to the city’s department of Parks and Recreation.)

Squirrel attacks were recorded even before urban planners created spaces in cities where squirrels could thrive. Except for the fact that humans in cities tend to feed squirrels, which is ultimately bad for them and for us—it’s a big part of why squirrels occasionally attack people.

Consider the 1878 story of a gray squirrel who charged toward a farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “legs wide spread and tail flaunting as he ran, concentrating all the terror of his little [body] into the loudest war-whoop.” This was apparently a squirrel with some degree of notoriety, the newspaper reported. “Last fall, the same squirrel attacked a laborer on the farm, and mutilated his face in a horrible manner.”

Squirrels mostly don’t bother people, let alone maim them. But they are everywhere, and that’s not always a good thing for humans. Then again, you might say the same thing about people if you were a squirrel.