Squirrels are normally known for running from people, but these days it seems that Duke students are the ones running from squirrels.
Although professors assert that behavior exhibited by squirrels on Duke’s campus is not abnormal given their environment, many students have reported experiencing unusual interactions with them across campus. Several students noted how unnerving it is that the squirrels seem to have no fear of people.
“I’m terrified of squirrels in general, so when a squirrel pops out of a trash can at me, it’s the worst thing ever,” sophomore Sam Rosso said. “I even avoid specific trash cans that squirrels have popped out of.”
Fortunately, there is little chance of squirrels on campus spreading diseases like rabies, said V. Louise Roth, professor of biology. She noted that foxes, raccoons and bats are the primary carriers in the Durham area.
“There’s a chance of getting bitten if you take for granted their tameness, but people usually don’t get that close,” she explained.
Roth did note that although squirrels are not naturally aggressive animals, they do have remarkably strong teeth and sharp claws—this potential for injury is likely enough to deter many students from interacting too closely with squirrels.
“They’re bold,” senior Crockett Stevenson noted. “You can get really near them and they won’t do a thing about it.”
John Mercer, associate professor of the practice of biology, explained that the squirrels on campus have become acclimated to students through repeated exposure to them.
“There are just a lot of people around, and the squirrels are used to eating food left behind by students,” he said. “[The squirrels] have no reason to fear them.”
The boldness of the squirrels on campus has resulted in students experiencing incidents in which squirrels either run uncomfortably close to them or physically touch them.
Junior Mark Cullen said that a squirrel jumped out of a trash can outside Brodie Gym and landed on his chest before scampering away.
The squirrels do not seem at all intimidated by the presence of students sitting or walking around campus, added freshman Griffin Haas.
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“One of my friends was sitting at an outdoor table and a squirrel literally ran across her,” he said.
References to the small animals have even appeared on the anonymous social media outlet Yik Yak. One post last year read, “The squirrels here look at you like you’re the squirrel.”
“I notice the squirrels through Yik Yak more than I notice them in real life,” freshman Lucas Carter said.
Despite some students’ unease with the squirrels, Mercer noted that the animals’ acclimation to people does not pose any significant problems for either group.
“Squirrels get along fine more or less with people as long as there’s a respectful relationship between the two species,” he said.
Mercer explained that the Eastern gray squirrel—the common name of the species found on campus—is usually more skittish in its natural forest habitat away from human contact. For instance, the squirrels living near the running trail by the Washington Duke Inn are less comfortable with people, he said.
Mercer also noted that he hopes students and squirrels have peaceful interactions in the future.
“Let us hope it’s benign on both sides,” he said.