All sorts frequent CityPlace. There’s Joel Daves, West Palm’s former mayor, and his basset hound Ophelia. There’s the guy who seems to have set up his office at Starbucks with a baseball cap, polo shirt and tennis shorts, his laptop always open. Another who carries his Pomeranian like a furry football - the tiny beast seems frozen stiff, taxidermied even, tongue hanging out the side of its mouth.
In the late afternoons at CityPlace, we know the baristas by name and the Sephora girl by the blue streak in her hair.
Signs posted in that well-traveled bricked corridor from Panera Bread to Anthropologie admonish visitors: Do Not Feed the Pigeons. (Still, inevitably someone does).
But those signs say nothing about the squirrels that now zip up and down the path’s two-story date palms, hopping on unsuspecting animals and scaring tourists at cafe tables. And the tiny grey beasts, there seem to be three of them, are undoubtedly dining local.
A worrier might say this isn’t going to end well for CityPlace’s new unofficial mascots.
The big one, which we call the Trickster – the one a CityPlace security guard the other day referred to as Raul - is most familiar, the one who’s been captured on so many cellphone videos.
This is the squirrel that likes to take on the dogs of CityPlace. It stands low on palm trunks, nose down, tail up and gazes teasingly at the straining giants who have never seen a fluffy-tailed rodent so willing to come near.
Trickster has been getting bolder lately. It was spotted darting at a low-riding furry giant – a Pomeranian or was it a Yorkie? The breed has faded from memory, but the action sequence sticks. Trickster first launched a trial run from the tree to the Low Rider and back before the dog could pounce. And then with the Low Rider still stunned to a standstill, Trickster darted out a second time, scampering right under Low Rider in a beeline for the fountain beyond.
Squirrels hold a special place in the America psyche, or at least on YouTube.
It turns out they’re infinitely trainable.
The gray squirrels of Pennsylvania State University have been photographed pushing mini grocery carts full of acorns and donning ear muffs, beanies and a thimble-sized Steelers’ helmet, all because an English major spent the last four years patiently plying them with roasted, unsalted peanuts.
In 2007, the Iranian government contended that someone had trained 14 squirrels to conduct espionage. They were arrested – the squirrels, that is.
Could the squirrels of CityPlace be up to spying on the POTUS? OK, that’s a reach.
But the natives are indeed training them, if not intentionally, to be fearless rather than fearful of we two-legged types. And the results are decidedly mixed.
“I’m not so sure that’s a good thing,” former Mayor Daves weighed in from a bench underneath one of those palms. “The first time I noticed him, he was on that tree. I couldn’t get her away.”
‘Her’ would be Ophelia, Daves’ basset hound. She’s getting used to the teasing now, Daves says. And as those words hang in the air, he is interrupted by a screech.
Four benches away, Trickster has hopped up to join a young lady with goodies from Starbucks – and she has fled. Trickster pursues, headed for the black rattan seating outside the coffee shop, and more tourists leap away.
“It scared us,” says Ruth Feinstein, on vacation from Philadelphia with her daughter and granddaughter. As they reclaim their seats, Trickster is next door atop a café table outside Le Macaron.
This time Trickster has found a friend, Razvan Anghel. The 43-year-old lives at City Place and says he comes to the café tables outside Le Macaron armed with almonds for his furry pal.
And that’s when the security guard stops by to welcome the squirrel back. “That’s Raul. He was gone for a couple of weeks. He’s our pet. He’s harmless.”
In a nearby flowerbed lurks the reason “Raul” may have disappeared: a baby squirrel. Raul may be Raul-ette.
This baby is also familiar to City Place frequenters.
A couple weeks back, some tourists rescued it from a seeming prison of decorative bars surrounding the plaza garbage cans. But rather than speeding for the nearest tree when freed, the baby crawled on its rescuer’s arm and from there onto someone else. Coaxing it onto the palm trunk was challenging. It sat there frozen for quite a while, allowing passersby to pet it as it perched.
The good news: At least mama’s still taking care of it.
“I probably have about 19 baby squirrels here right now,” says David Hitzig, executive director of Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter. When people try to nurse baby squirrels it often goes wrong, the babies literally inhale the formula and develop infections.
The bad news, in Hitzig’s experience: The humans are mothering the mama by feeding it.
Humans seem to have a thing for squirrels.
“I would say at least a couple of times a month someone walks in with a squirrel that they’ve raised,” says Hitzig. And by the time they arrive at the sanctuary’s doorstep, the squirrel is “the Tasmanian Devil,” he says. An uncontrolled whirling dervish that’s unafraid of running up a stranger’s pant leg.
“Feeding wild animals is just not a good idea,” Hitzig says. In some cases, laws are on the books because things go so wrong. “Racoons, foxes, black bears, sandhill cranes. There’s a whole list of animals. That’s for your safety and those around you.”
Sandhill cranes? “They can get aggressive.”
And sharing food from the human plate exposes wildlife to the human diet.
“People feed ducks with bread, then they end up with metabolic bone disease. It’s poor nutrition. Imagine narrowing your diet to just bread,” Hitzig says.
Here’s another cause for alarm. Out west – California and Arizona west – the ground squirrels can carry the plague. Yes, the epidemic that killed one third of Europe’s population in the 14th century sometimes referred to as Black Death. But relax, that hasn’t killed anyone yet.
Squirrels aren’t susceptible to rabies. Still, Hitzig warns, “There’s nothing worse than a squirrel bite. That is nasty.”
The sanctuary takes in these ‘pets.’
“We introduce them and give them social time with other squirrels, hoping they’ll forget about people,” Hitzig said. “Often I’ve seen them arrive in a cage. That’s not a life.”
After four years of dressing Penn State’s squirrels (and labeling all of them “Sneezy” the squirrel because who can tell the difference?), Mary Krupa graduated in December 2016. No word on how those squirrels are faring without her and their Facebook following.
For what it’s worth, Hitzig says, “The bottom line is even though it seems like you’re doing a good thing by feeding them, it’s not.”