When Squirrels Were One of America’s Most Popular Pets

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(image via Met Museum)

I don’t exactly hate squirrels; they’re fine in my backyard, part of a little cast of characters (birds, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits, the occasional skunk, a prowling neighborhood black cat). I do prefer, however, that they stay very much outside. The only time I think I’ve registered someone keeping a squirrel as a pet — fiction or otherwise — is Uncle Billy from It’s a Wonderful Life, and he was famously a bit of a kook. I was definitely surprised to find Ben Franklin, and many other well-to-do 18th Century Americans kept squirrels as pets… inside their homes! Atlas Obscura breaks it all down here.

By the 1700s, a golden era of squirrel ownership was in full swing. Squirrels were sold in markets and found in the homes of wealthy urban families, and portraits of well-to-do children holding a reserved, polite upper-class squirrel attached to a gold chain leash were proudly displayed (some of which are currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Most pet squirrels were American Grey Squirrels, though Red Squirrels and Flying Squirrels also were around, enchanting the country with their devil-may-care attitudes and fluffy bodies.

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