In the 1980s, Marla Williams was resting outside Campbell Hall after a long day of classes when she received a furry surprise in her backpack. A fearless squirrel had snuck its way inside and began to rummage through her belongings.
“There’s nothing they won’t do to get what they want. They just think that everybody is their best friend,” said Williams, a UCLA alumna. “They were everywhere. They feared nothing.”
Williams said squirrel encounters were not a rarity during her time at UCLA. Nowadays, students report seeing dozens of squirrels on their way to classes, and they have become a social media sensation for the UCLA community. Snapchat stories, Facebook feeds and Instagram photos capture the squirrels’ day-to-day interactions with the human population. They are documented digging through trash bins, climbing on café tables and scampering down Bruin Walk.
The squirrels have been adjusting to campus life at least since Williams graduated in 1985, but the eastern fox squirrel, the primary species at UCLA, was introduced to California in 1904. Since then, the fox squirrel has gradually adapted to urbanized areas such as Los Angeles, said Gregory Grether, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology.
The native western grey squirrels have been increasingly displaced and now mainly remain in less developed areas, like the Santa Monica mountains, he said.
“If you go to a park in Los Angeles and you see squirrels in the trees, they’re almost certainly going to be fox squirrels,” Grether said.
The squirrels’ willingness to approach humans are largely a product of their adaptive nature and a variety of other factors, including diet, he said.
“They seem to make better use of the food people leave around campus and they look pretty healthy,” Grether said. “I’m sure if they eat the wrong things, it could make them sick.”
However, the search for a meal can sometimes lead to negative interactions between students and squirrels.
When Grether taught an animal behavior course, his students conducted an experiment on scrub-jays in the botanical gardens. Before long, the squirrels intervened in the study, gathering the food that was laid out for the birds. Some squirrels went as far as climbing up a student’s leg to snatch a peanut.
“That was the last time we taught that lab,” Grether said. “Sometimes they get a little too bold.”
Wendy Xie, a first-year neuroscience student, said she doesn’t like squirrels because they jump out of nowhere and grab food from people.
Itrat Batool, a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student, has a different opinion. She said she often engages with the squirrels while studying for her classes outside on campus.
“I love them. It’s always nice to have somebody around you, and they’re a nice distraction, not a bad one. I like taking photos of them, ” Batool said.
First-year art student Veronica Henderson said she sees around 10 squirrels on her way to and from classes each day.
Henderson recently brought a boxed Bruin Café sandwich to the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center Park Pool. As she set her belongings down, a squirrel jumped inside her bag and dragged out the sandwich box. Henderson threw the sandwich away, but the squirrel wasn’t ready to give up the fight quite so soon.
“It dives into the trash can, pulls out the box, opens it and starts eating the sandwich,” Henderson said.
Concerned that the sandwich would have negative effects on its health, Henderson said she attempted to shoo the squirrel away.
“It started hissing at me,” Henderson said. “So, I just let it do its thing. Honestly I was a little freaked out.”
Now, Henderson keeps her distance. However, her friends take and share pictures of the squirrels and their antics on Instagram.
Alumnus Jonathan Oskins said he used to see about two dozen squirrels a day on campus. Occasionally, he noticed squirrels perched on window sills, waiting for professors to feed them peanuts and other treats.
His squirrel encounters, along with other college squirrel pages, inspired Oskins to share his own images on Facebook. Oskins created the “Squirrels at UCLA” Facebook page in 2009, which now has over 4,000 likes. The posts include pictures and videos of the squirrels on campus, as well as squirrel memes. He receives submissions from students and alumni every few weeks.
Oskins continues to administer and upload content, though he graduated from UCLA in 2009.
Freddy Jimenez, a second-year business economics student, created the Facebook page “Squirrels of UCLA” in fall 2014, when he and his roommate decided to reach a wider audience with their Snapchat photos and videos of squirrels. Jimenez’s page, which now features mainly student submissions, has accumulated nearly 900 followers.
Pictures and videos display the squirrels doing just about anything, like resting in trees or guarding half-eaten burritos. One video depicts a blissful squirrel munching on a snack, accidentally losing its grip and then watching its meal plummet into the trash can below – a reference to students’ life during finals.
Jimenez said the squirrels’ overall humorous character has sparked their social media fame. He thinks students are attracted to the squirrels’ intelligence and chubby appearances.
However, students are not the only ones following the squirrels on social media. Jimenez has also seen an increased presence of alumni likes and comments on the page.
“We’ve gotten comments from people as far back as Class of 1967 saying they really like what we’re doing,” Jimenez said. “It’s cool to see.”
Oskins and Jimenez both said their pages have received comments from people who fear the squirrels, but the majority sentiment remains overwhelmingly the opposite.
“Sometimes people just need a break from the stress of studying,” Oskins said. “They’re a cute distraction from everyday life.”