Ten black squirrels were trapped in Canada and released onto the Kent State University grounds in 1961. Now hundreds of the furry rodents inhabit the city of Kent and surrounding areas and have become the unofficial mascot of Kent State.
“I think the first time it is rather jarring to see an entire campus with black furry things,” said Heather White, manager of campus environment and operations at Kent State. “But it is a point of pride.”
The black squirrel is a variety of the eastern gray squirrel. This variation was much more common before the 16th century since their color helped them camouflage in the dense forests of North America before trees were cleared for agriculture which made them easily seen. They were killed off and their gray counterparts thrived.
Kent State became home to the squirrels after grounds superintendent Larry Woodell and his friend “Biff” Staples negotiated with Canadian wildlife authorities to capture ten squirrels and bring them to the University in order to preserve the species.
After over 50 years, the black squirrels have become famous. KSU celebrates the bushy-tailed creatures with the Black Squirrel Festival every year in September.
“The festival is meant to welcome new and returning students to the university and the city of Kent in the same way we welcomed our furry friends, the black squirrels,” said Kasai Carter, student manager of KSU student center programming. “The festival has all sorts of entertainment from local musicians, vendors from the area, and a lot of the student organizations on campus also participate.”
The Black Squirrel Festival is only the beginning of black squirrel pride in Kent. There is Black Squirrel Radio, a Black Squirrel Triathlon, Black Squirrel Books, Black Squirrel Music, Black Squirrel Gallery, Black Squirrel Brewing, bumper stickers, t-shirts, stuffed animals, and the campus police have even adopted the black squirrel as part of their emblem. All of these are clear indications that black squirrels are a staple both on and off campus.
In the first few decades of the squirrels’ existence on campus, grounds maintenance helped the colony thrived by installing food baskets and nesting boxes up in the trees. Today, they look out for themselves.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” White said. “The food baskets were removed, and we don’t feed wildlife anymore. They have to fend for themselves.”
In numerous articles written about the squirrels in the past, they are often described as “the unofficial mascots, famous campus residents, and peculiar, annoying, amazing and even troublesome.”
Unlike the staff in years past, who complained of the squirrels being pests by getting caught in heating unit grills or in buildings where holes lure them in for warmth, White said her staff hasn’t had any first-hand experience or issues with the squirrels.
The furry residents’ reputation as being unfriendly or mean as described in some old news or academic articles is also something White said she hasn’t encountered.
It seems after their five-decade occupation of Kent, the black squirrels are finally doing what Wooddell hoped they would.
A 1961 article that appeared in the Record-Courier said, “Wooddell, pleased that campus now has a colony of rare squirrels, believes they will take kindly to KSU surroundings.”
And so they have.
by Haley Baker