Grasping the branch, which quivers even with the slight weight, the eastern fox squirrel reaches out its other paw to grab the whole walnut offered by photographer Jennifer Hale. It balances the nut, half the size of its head, in its teeth, and immediately darts away to the safety of the other side of the palm tree. This rodent is particularly acrobatic, and hangs upside down to nibble away at the walnut, scraping away at the shell with its choppers. The trees in the palm grove at the gardens of Lake Merritt are dotted by patches of beige, and the squirrel’s speckled brown bushy tail, held flush with its body, camouflages the animal almost perfectly.
“They’re like little teddy bears, little people, little goofballs,” says Hale, grinning.
The squirrels have taken some time to come out from the nests where they sleep. Hale and Tony Toppano, the photography duo who make up Hella Damn Squirrels, hypothesize that it might have to do with the recent rain and damp chill that is causing even the human passersby to bundle up. As they walk from Children’s Fairyland to the gardens, where visitors can stroll through seven distinctly-themed landscapes, Toppano shakes a bag of walnuts, some whole and some shelled, hoping the squirrels will pop up at the sound of the nuts crashing together.
Hella Damn Squirrels has been in full operation since 2013. The group only consists of two people, Hale and her boyfriend Toppano, partners in squirrel photography from the very beginning. They focus solely on the squirrels at Lake Merritt: Toppano, the squirrel feeder and “wrangler” of the duo, brings them over with the bag of walnuts and Hale, a professional photographer, snaps their photos to be posted on social media.
Large, framed photos of their work have now been featured at the Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland, at Lake Merritt’s Autumn Lights Festival and at Mini Bar on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. They will be displayed at the Lakeview Branch of the Oakland Public Library for the month of February.
Hale is excited that the library exhibit will be so close to the squirrels’ habitat. “I think people will get it because the squirrels are fairly aggressive around there,” says Hale. “These are the same squirrels that are in Fairyland, and I imagine sort of the same little kids that go to Fairyland will be in the library.”
Before her squirrel photography took off, Hale would see the squirrels as she jogged around the lake, and thought they were funny little characters with extroverted personalities. Hella Damn Squirrels originated as a Facebook lark, a spoof on all the unoriginal posts that popped up in Hale’s news feed.
She pokes fun at the videos her friends would post on Facebook. “You discovered this obscure video about some obscure glam band from ’74,” says Hale, a burst of laughter punctuating her sentences, as it is wont to do. “Cool. Well, I discovered squirrels.”
On Facebook, she would give each Lake Merritt squirrel a name and caption her photos with a description of what they were doing, suggesting personalities or feelings based on their poses. A picture of a squirrel looking disdainfully at the camera while sprawled out in an almost-regal pose, posted on January 24, reads, “Mastadon doesn’t care for your lack of enthusiasm towards tossing nuts his way.”
Another post from January 21 features a squirrel with its paws in front of its mouth as if it is playing a wind instrument, reading, “Piccolo Pete likes to practice playing, but having such a proud set of whiskers can really get in the way.”
“They almost seem smarter than they actually are, because they’re so skittish,” says Hale, “but when they’re frozen in the pictures, they’re just kind of funny.”
Though Hella Damn Squirrel’s Facebook page really took off in 2013, Toppano and Hale had been snapping squirrel photos for fun before that. (Facebook says the group was founded on June 17, 1860. This is a little before Lake Merritt was constructed, and the couple conjectures that squirrels have been at the lake since its creation.) The Facebook page gave them an excuse to visit Lake Merritt and the little critters.
Hale’s squirrel anthropomorphizing took off on other social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instragram, gaining followers from all over the world, especially, for some reason, Russia.
Seeing her Tumblr followers is especially amusing to Hale. “The names are always hilarious,” she says, “because they’re always someone’s pet dog’s name.” Finnigan-the-Whip-It is one of their loyal followers.
Just as Hale and Toppano almost reach the community garden, a squirrel appears. Toppano tosses a walnut down, which is snatched up with the lightning-fast caution of a forager. Soon five squirrels appear, at first approaching in wary, halting bounds. Then, emboldened by the bounty of walnuts, they crowd around, sniffing boots and standing up on their hind legs in begging postures. One squirrel discovers the gallon-sized Ziploc filled with walnuts and dives in.
“Walnuts are prime rib to them,” says Toppano, his face crinkling into a grin. They had learned on a squirrel walk put on by the organization Wild Oakland, a group that offers free environmental education, that peanuts, a legume, are not good for squirrels. Their guide had equated the nutritional value of peanuts for squirrels to that of McDonald’s for humans.
A woman in pink exercise clothes walks up to the scene with a bemused expression on her face. “You’re feeding the squirrels?” she asks.
“Oh yeah, they like it,” answers Toppano enthusiastically. “They’re hungry.”
The woman remains for a moment longer, the look on her face hovering between amusement and disapproval.
Most of the squirrels at Lake Merritt are eastern fox squirrels, though in the Bay Area the eastern grey squirrel is also prevalent, says Lila Travis, director of the Yggdrasil Urban Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, which operates in the East Bay. Both species, she says, were initially brought to the Bay Area as hunting stock by the California Department of Fish and Game, and have established themselves here for over 100 years. Because of this, they are categorized as “non-indigenous natives” by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The original native squirrels, the western grey tree squirrels, could not adapt to urban landscapes as San Francisco and Oakland grew, and so moved north and south to more foliage-rich regions in the peninsula.
“They’re much more dependent upon trees, frankly,” says Travis. “We don’t value our trees in our city as much.”
An intern from Yggdrasil founded Wild Oakland, and the two organizations retain close ties, with Travis giving the annual Wild Oakland “squirrel walk” at Lake Merritt.
People seem to be divided on the question of whether squirrels are pests or adorable critters. Gardeners lament the havoc that squirrels wreak upon their gardens and fruit trees, while squirrel-lovers feed them at parks and create squirrel memes.
But regardless of opinion, the squirrel population has been greatly affected by human encroachment. Deforestation and urban development have pushed the native squirrels out of Oakland, and squirrels are frequently hit by cars. Travis recalls one instance in which a mother squirrel used sod, a human-made material, to line her nest. Sodis made up of nylon mesh, an unbreakable material that her two babies could not shake off as they grew larger. The mesh ensnared both of the babies, binding them to one another andkilling one of them.
Much of the work that Travis and Yggdrasil do centers on the effect of urban development on wildlife. The organization operates in the East Bay and rehabilitates orphaned mammals back into the wild. They take in about 200 orphaned squirrel babies every year.
Squirrel babies’ eyes remain closed for five weeks after their birth, meaning that they are completely nest-bound and dependent upon their mothers for this entire time. While the lengthy period of blindness serves to develop their eyes, so that they have color vision and can see better than humans at dusk and daybreak, it also puts mothers in a vulnerable position.
“It’s very common for mama squirrels to be attacked by dogs or hit by cars while they’re running around trying to get the right nutrition to be able to continue to produce milk for their babies,” says Travis. “Squirrels actually have the longest mother-child relationship in the rodent family, and in most families.” She compares their relationship to that of cats, who open their eyes about two weeks after birth and are completely weaned from their mothers by four to seven weeks.
After a person finds an orphaned squirrel and calls Yggdrasil, the baby is put in the care of one of the organization’s five squirrel foster families. At first, fosterers will carry the babies around and feed them every few hours. Then, as the animals grow older, feeding times can be spaced out. Once their eyes open, they will be placed in a play cage, which simulates a wild enclosure and is a place for young squirrels to explore and learn important squirrel skills, like hiding nuts, jumping from branch to branch and building a nest.
“They’re not going to learn everything that their mom would teach them,” says Travis, “so we have to give them a bit of a safety net” with the play cage. Once they are deemed self-sufficient, they are released into the wild within three miles of where they were found.
The Hella Damn Squirrels team falls into the squirrel-lover category.
“Yeah, we like them,” says Hale.
“They’re great,” agrees Toppano.
“I guess if they’re damaging stuff—” acknowledges Hale, trailing off for a second, “but it’s all kind of part of the cycle.”
“They’re really gentle when they eat out of your hand,” adds Toppano, at which Hale cracks up, looking at the pinprick of blood on her finger, a casualty of a squirrel claw from earlier that day.
Toppano’s dream for when they “make it big,” is to have a water park where squirrels and capybaras roam around freely, where people can enjoy the company of squirrels and their larger cousins.
The final stop of the photography expedition is Hale’s favorite spot at Lake Merritt: the palm grove, or, as it is officially called, the Lakeside Palmetum. The whole section feels like an airy cave, with trees towering above the walkway, palm fronds framing the path. Squirrels bound from the trees to the ground as if they are in a trampoline park, and gravity is no obstacle. One starts to claw up the leg of Toppano’s cargo pants; he wears the pants for construction work but has come to call them his “squirrel pants,” as they are a popular climbing destination for the critters. All of the sudden, crows overhead began to caw, and, as if shocked by an invisible wave of electricity, the squirrels start to squeak, scrambling up to higher positions in the trees and stretching out their arms in a defensive posture.
“I think it’s the hawk,” says Toppano, shading his eyes with his hand and scanning the skies, looking for the perpetrator of the ruckus. One of the most traumatic experiences they have witnessed on their squirrel expeditions was seeing a hawk go after a squirrel right in front of them. (The squirrel got away.) But when one of their favorite squirrels, Sunny Side Up, went missing, their first guess was that she had been “hawked.”
Hale and Toppano are not the only squirrel aficionados at Lake Merritt and in Oakland. Many others are also avid squirrel feeders, amused by their little personalities, though according to Toppano the feeders can get “territorial” about their self-appointed position, feeling that they are the squirrel-feeders, no one else.
Oakland resident Suzane Beaubrun, a friend of the Hella Damn Squirrels duo, was so charmed by her backyard squirrel resident that she too incorporated squirrels into her artwork. When Beaubrun first moved into her house, she was annoyed by the animal sabotaging her garden. She began to feed the squirrel in an effort to curb her appetite and save the plants. But the squirrel only became more persistent, and soon the two formed a friendship that has lasted for five years.
“We just started this weird, squirrel-girl relationship,” said Beaubrun. “We hang out with each other in the backyard. I learned that she would actually sit still and let me put hats and things on her, let me take her picture.”
Beaubrun dubbed the squirrel Rebachichi (“Reba” or “Chi Chi” for short), and she is now a frequent visitor. Rebachichi gracefully balances atop the neighbors’ fences as she races to grab walnuts from Beaubrun’s back porch, and then turns back, running along the fence without seeming to touch it. She knows that a further store of walnuts sits on a bench right inside the house, so deftly wedging her paw in the little crack between door and its frame, she opens the door. Bouncing inside before the door has time to slam on her, Reba springs up to the coveted walnut bag, and, after munching on a few, returns to make the fence-top journey back to what Beaubrun can only assume is a mountainous stash.
Rebachichi has also made it to social media, appearing on Facebook in holiday or sports-inspired hats made by Beaubrun herself. (Her Facebook profile, “Rebachichi La Rue,” has friends from all over the world.) Beaubrun, a jewelry maker and artist, has also turned these photos into cards that she sells at two galleries in Berkeley: 4th Street Fine Art and Arts & Crafts Cooperative, Inc.
“She earns her keep,” says Beaubrun, laughing, adding that what she earns from selling Rebachichi cards can go towards buying walnuts.
Not everyone is enamored with the squirrels.
“They’re really terrible with fruit trees,” says David Blood, a member of the Alameda County Master Gardeners organization, which meets for garden work at the Lake Merritt Trials Gardens every Wednesday. “They’ll come up and they’ll taste it, they’ll say, ‘Oh no, it’s not ripe yet.’ And they’ll throw it out.” He recalls seeing plums and figs littering the ground after squirrel “tasting” sessions.
Squirrels are wired that way, says Travis. “People don’t understand that that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do,” she says, recalling the angry calls she had received from people upset about their fruit trees. “Mom Nature programmed them to be the world’s germinators.” By taking a few bites and dropping the fruit to the ground, they are basically planting trees.
Travis takes a different position from most wildlife experts on the topic of animal-feeding. Excessive feeding can be dangerous, she says, because it can make an animal too dependent on people, but a small amount can help forge a bond between animal and human. “I firmly believe that one of the main ways that we get up close and personal with the wildlife around us is through feeding,” says Travis. “And it’s so important that we get up close and personal with the wildlife around us. Because if we don’t meet the wildlife around us, how are we going to fall in love with it? And if don’t love it, we’re not going to be interested in saving it.”
While Hale and Toppano are squirrel fans, they are not trying to change society’s perceptions of squirrels with their photographs. “I just want to make people laugh,” says Hale. “I think that’s it. If people hate squirrels, they’re not going to laugh, and that’s fine. We just want to do it for entertainment value.”
The Hella Damn Squirrels photo exhibit will be displayed at the Lakeview Branch of the Oakland Public Library from February 1, 2016 until February 29, 2016. More information can be found at http://www.oaklandlibrary.org/exhibits/hella-damn-squirrels-we-live-banks-lake-merritt-oakland-and-we-rule-fat-and-fuzzy-fists.