How hard could it be to find a tree-loving rodent in a city filled with parks?
The gardens of Paris' Rodin Museum are a fine setting for many a good thing. You can enjoy a tranquil oasis in the middle of the city. Great works of art are resplendent in a natural setting. Rodin's masterpiece, The Thinker, awaits your admiring gaze. What you can't do, however, is see a squirrel.
I wish I could tell you that "squirrel" is code for a kind of art or maybe even a pastry, but no. I'm talking about your everyday prosaic squirrel. Red, grey, black, flying, I was open to them all but in Paris, they eluded me.
I don't normally look for vermin when I travel and, if I did, I don't know if squirrels would top my agenda. As a dog owner, squirrels have long been on Oliver's list of enemies (along with the mop, highway rumble strips, and the doorbell). As such, while I have no personal animosity with squirrels, familial loyalty dictates that I hate them. But my hand was forced when I shared the story of seeing sheep grazing on public lands not far from my Paris apartment.
My tale of discovering the Eco-Mouton came in the middle of an online networking event with colleagues. My reference to actual animals somehow had its wagon hitched to a separate reference about animal-like energy (aka "feeling squirrel-y") and a comment was made that I should be on the lookout for squirrels as well as sheep. Challenge accepted! I'd find an adorable squirrel, take a quick snapshot as it delicately nibbled away on a gourmet nut like the true discerning Parisian it was, and gain the accolades of my friends. There was just one problem....
There are no squirrels in Paris.
In a city filled with public parks and ample green space, you'd think that squirrels would live in Paris. God knows enough pigeons call the city home. Apparently rats thrive here too, judging from the signs I saw everywhere crying "Stop Aux Rats!", imploring people to not leave garbage around. But squirrels? Impossible. What I thought would be a simple lark soon became an outright fiasco and I quickly started attracting strange looks as I lingered near bushes with my camera, only to walk away disgusted when the rustling I was investigating turned out to be a bird. I felt like I could have been my very own version of the popular book series for toddlers. That's Not My Duck. That's Not My Penguin. That's Not Vanessa's Squirrel....
My list of places where I did not see squirrels soon read like a top ten list of the city's most popular attractions. The Tuileries Garden at dawn? No. Same for the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, though a disobedient dog did stray from his master to put muddy paws on my leg. There was a black and white cat at Père Lachaise Cemetery and, on my own street, I met Junior the Golden Retriever. He clearly wasn't concerned about a squirrel invasion, judging from his lackadaisical attitude. There was a freakin' orchard down the road from my house but still my quest went unsatisfied.
Trips to Paris' rural outskirts were similarly unproductive - from a squirrel hunting perspective, at least. At Claude Monet's home and garden in Giverny (a prime spot for stashing nuts if ever I saw one), there was nothing but birds. On the woodland estate of Versailles I didn't see so much as a tail. And when I attempted to go to the forest at Fountainebleau, well, I couldn't actually find the forest (a saga I'll save for another day).
I fared a bit better when it came to faux squirrels. I spotted them in ceramic, decorative, wooden, and even taxidermy varieties. Now that I'm home in Canada (a land which abounds with rodents), it occurs to me that I should have looked for representations of squirrels in Paris' artwork. The Louvre, surely, had an ode or two to woodland critters. But while I can find children's books about cats and mice in the Louvre and there are lists of both horses and dogs represented in the Louvre's treasure trove, there's no comprehensive database of all the animals represented in all its artwork (which, to be fair, sounds like a nearly-impossible undertaking but, hey, a lot of people had a bunch of free time on their hands during the pandemic so I dared to hope.) Horses, hounds, exotic beasts, and birds (both dead and alive) are pretty well represented in the Louvre but I could find no references to squirrels.
I was not on a fool's errand while in France. The very word "squirrel" comes from Old French. According to no-less an authority than Wikipedia (and what reason would it have to lie to us about rodents?): "The word squirrel, first attested in 1327, comes from the Anglo-Norman esquirel which is from the Old French escurel, the reflex of a Latin word sciurus, which was taken from the Ancient Greek word σκίουρος (skiouros; from σκία-ουρος) 'shadow-tailed', referring to the long bushy tail which many of its members have."
I also learned that a group of squirrels is called either a "dray" (boring!) or a "scurry" (spectacularly appropriate). Worryingly, I also read that there's a theory that, due to their penchant for chewing on wires and thus interrupting infrastructure, squirrels are more dangerous than cyber-attacks.
I'm not surprised. They're clearly jerks.
It's at this point in the story that I should demonstrate what a crackerjack journalist I am and recount how I interviewed curators at the National Museum of Natural History or one of Paris' many small museums dedicated to the natural world. But speaking to experts is precicely what the squirrels would expect me to do and I am nothing if not prepared for to demonstrate a little squirrel-y energy myself and outmaneuver them. Let's face it. By this time, I was looking at "sensible" and "professional" in the rearview mirror.
In an effort to justify my manic hunt, I turned to the internet to see if squirrels really are sighted in France. Turns out they are and, in some areas, they're a bit of a nuisance just like everywhere else. While invasive grey squirrels seem to be everywhere now (given that they move in "scurrys" and not "plodding confused groups", this shouldn't be surprising). As such, the native red squirrel isn't having an easy time of it. A Quora question about why there aren't any squirrels in Parisian parks while London and New York are positively teaming with them posited that: "The red squirrels tend to prefer coniferous trees which are not often seen in Paris parks." Fair. But it still doesn't explain why the far less discerning grey squirrel isn't seen more often. Maybe some mysteries are destined to never be solved.
After one month in Paris and three weeks of dedicated searching, I hadn't seen a single live squirrel. Clearly, the time had come to go home. Naturally, minutes after arriving in London I saw nothing but squirrels. Eager to put some distance between myself and my failed quest, I didn't take any photos of the London rodents. My heart just wasn't in it any more. But on my very last night, on my way back to the hotel for the very last time, the squirrel-a-verse had one last surprise for me.
I was leaving the British Museum when I saw what was once a classic red London phone booth that had been repurposed for artistic purposes. And what was inside? Squirrels. So many squirrels! They were fake, of course, part of the display, and absolutely perfect. Perfect. And with that, I took the very last photo of my trip.
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