What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Learning about survival from the squirrel

We may have something to learn from our fellow city-dwellers.

We humans often have nothing but distain for the common animals we find in the city constantly underfoot. Raccoons, rats, pigeons, and squirrels all are thought of as "pests" and most of us city-dwellers consider them more of a nuisance than anything else.

But what we often fail to see is that these co-habitants of our world are incredible survivors. While we might find a giraffe or lion more exotic and exciting, we fail to see that pigeons and squirrels have not only survived in an unnatural and harsh environment but have thrived and adapted and lived for generations amongst us.

The squirrel, for example, is one of the most widely disseminated mammals in the world, found on all continents except for Antarctica and Australia, even living up in the Himalayas. So what can we learn from a creature such as the squirrel about adaptation and survival? Certainly some of their ability to adapt comes from a phenomenal elasticity of their body. They can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, rotate their ankles 180 degrees, regulate their body heat with their tail, and have incredible visual acuity complete with built-in sunglasses to reduce glare.

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But the squirrel's success is not just due to their physical gifts. It turns out that squirrels are not only deft at manipulating objects but also each other. They are social, chatty, complain to each other, and nest communally as multigenerational, matrilineal clans. They even greet each other at the end of the day with something akin to a kiss. Squirrels, it turns out, are remarkably similar to primates, which makes them surprisingly similar... well, to us.

Even more remarkably, squirrels have also survived because they have the ability to learn by watching others - not just other squirrels, but also by watching other species. Squirrels have learned how to cross the street safely, for example, by waiting with people on the sidewalk and crossing when they cross. In other words, they haven't just dismissed us as the loud, polluting, domineering "pests" that we are, but instead looked at our behavior and learned what they can about making due and surviving in their/our environment. Perhaps if we are smart, this is a trait that we could adapt from the squirrels. Perhaps we might survive a little longer if we look around and see how they, and others, may offer us something to learn.

 

 

AP Photo/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Michael Smith

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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