Visiting Boston for the first time recently, Thomas Ferrer took in a number of the city’s seminal sights — Fenway Park and the USS Constitution, the Freedom Trail and the iconic Cheers bar.
In the end, though, nothing left him quite as impressed as the squirrels in the Public Garden.
“They’re, like, Chris Farley-sized,” the 29-year-old Atlanta resident marveled. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Boston’s human population might be known for its active lifestyle, annually ranking among the healthiest residents in the United States, but that hasn’t trickled down, apparently, to the bushy-tailed wildlife that inhabit the city’s central parks.
Take an afternoon stroll through the Public Garden or Boston Common and prepare to be astounded by just how rotund the creatures are, like fur-covered softballs.
“Everybody in the office here has noticed,” said Susan Abell, director of communications outreach for the Friends of the Public Garden. “They’re just so much chubbier than squirrels elsewhere.”
It’s gotten so bad that online reviews of the city’s most beloved tourist spots are being highjacked by dismayed commenters.
“Saw the largest squirrels ever . . . very well fed!” reads one recent review on TripAdvisor of Boston Common.
“Shamelessly they come up to you for food,” reads another.
Boston’s squirrels, in the words of veterinarian Greg Mertz, chief executive of the New England Wildlife Center and a man who has treated some 5,000 squirrels over the years, “are obese.”
And the reason may be obvious.
“They’re being overfed,” he says.
Those 74 acres of green at the city’s core comprise a resplendent buffet, regularly stocked by the throngs of people who pass through each day — with castaway french fries, Thanksgiving leftovers, breakfast pastries, and mini Oreos, to name just a few recently observed items feasted upon by the furry masses.
Then there are the folks who regularly toss crumbs to the creatures, presumably to make sure they don’t go hungry.
Though feeding the wildlife is technically forbidden in the Public Garden, it doesn’t seem to stop anyone — and the squirrels, for their part, can be convincing.
“I don’t always have food with me, but if I do, I’ll usually break off a few crumbs for a couple squirrels,” said Daniel Small, a network engineer in Boston who shared part of his bagel with the Common’s squirrels one recent afternoon. “I’ve always had a soft spot for animals.”
To be fair, Boston isn’t the only city with gluttonous squirrels.
In Toronto, grainy video footage captured a squirrel swiping a chocolate bar from a grocery store.
And earlier this month, when a New Jersey family installed a camera on their front porch to determine who’d been ransacking the “treat tray” they had set out for holiday delivery drivers, they were surprised to discover that the culprit was, in fact, a squirrel.
Still, Boston’s not-so-tiny beasts have shown a particular willingness to let themselves go — and an increasingly cavalier attitude when it comes to obtaining food.
The animals regularly accost tourists, and — if some reports are to be believed — have been known to use force to get what they want.
One woman detailed for her Twitter followers a squirrel’s apparent attempt to steal almonds from her purse. A man spotted a squirrel scurrying across a power line with a half-loaf of bread in its mouth, as though apprehended from someone’s pantry.
“I bought some nuts to feed the squirrels that approached us begging for food and I got scratched by one of them for not giving him the nut quick enough,” reads an online review of Boston Common, ominously titled “Watch out for the squirrels!!!!”
The good news is that their undeniable heft is likely to decline, at least a little, in the coming months.
Squirrels — like their human counterparts — tend to puff up around the holidays, in preparation for winter, a period that’s typically followed by a slimming down as freezing temperatures set in, foot traffic slows, and food becomes increasingly scarce.
What’s more, he adds, their unseemly eating habits probably don’t put the animals in significant physiological danger.
“Put it this way,” he says. “We don’t have squirrels coming to our hospital because they’re morbidly obese.”
In fact, despite their expanded waistlines, the creatures seem to have retained the physical dexterity that’s necessary to outmaneuver another native animal known for its prodigious appetite and shameless begging.
Says Abell, of the Friends of the Public Garden:
“I’ve never seen a dog catch one, that’s for sure.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.