Maybe it’s nuts, but they call her ‘The Squirrel Whisperer’

Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 – Sept. 1, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Maybe it’s nuts, but they call her ‘The Squirrel Whisperer’

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke 

“When I was a small child, I used to walk through Prospect Park with my grandfather. I thought he was magic because the squirrels always followed him,” said Susan Goren. She later learned that her grandfather had dropped nuts as they walked all along. 

Although Goren has always noticed squirrels, it wasn’t until she went on disability three years ago following various health problems and unexpected surgeries that she began to bring nuts and water, as well as attention, to the squirrels in Washington Square Park on a daily basis. 

Goren spends about $150 a month on feeding squirrels. 

“I had to start ordering online, because around here they charge a lot for a pound of nuts, and that will last me less than a week,” she explained during a recent visit to the park. “I can order online in bulk, but I don’t have room in my apartment to store 25 pounds of nuts.” 

Goren is planning to share the order with a fellow Washington Square Park squirrel feeder. 

Goren and a friend did a squirrel taste test with almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and acorns. The critters take the acorns every time, although acorns are not always available. 

In the fall, Goren imports acorns from the playground outside of the McDonald’s on W. Third St. There are also a few oak trees in Washington Square Park that produce the squirrels’ favorite food.

Like all rodents, squirrels’ teeth keep growing and they have to continuously shave them down. Goren says that sometimes you can hear the squirrels making scraping noises on harder nuts like almonds and hazelnuts, which means that they are filing their teeth. 

“When I started, I used to get bitten, but I haven’t been bit all year — knock on wood,” Goren said. “Bites hurt like the devil. They have a very sharp set of teeth. They are rodents, after all.

“They don’t have rabies,” she added. 

A friend of hers went to St. Vincent’s after getting bitten and the doctor said not to worry about rabies upon hearing the type of animal bite. 

When a tree limb was cut down and the squirrels’ nest box fell, Goren fed the babies with a syringe filled with puppy food every two hours and was “heartbroken” when the babies didn’t make it. 

“I am not a rehabber yet, but every time I take care of new babies I get a little closer,” Goren said. 

A squirrel rehabber is licensed by the state and must pass tests, submit references and have an interview in order to get approved. Certified squirrel rehabbers are listed with the Center for Animal Care & Control so they can be called up if a motherless or injured squirrel is found.  

When a squirrel recently got hit by a car, a rehabber kept the squirrel in a dark room and the animal recovered, Goren noted. If a squirrel is sick or injured, it can be taken to a veterinarian that specializes in wildlife. 

“I took a squirrel in a carrier on the subway to a vet on the Upper East Side. The squirrel needed surgery but ultimately didn’t make it,” Goren recalled.

Goren once saw a dog kill a squirrel in Washington Square Park. 

“There is a leash law for a reason,” she said. “A squirrel is just as sentient a being as a dog or a cat.

“I spend a couple hours a day watching them when I have time,” she said. “In the summer, the days are longer so they stay out later. They don’t come out at night because they are scared of rats.” 

Goren is not the first local resident to spend time observing squirrels. “Squirrels at My Window: Life With a Remarkable Gang of Urban Squirrels,” considered an essential text, was written by Grace Marmor Spruch, a former New York University physics professor, and details Spruch’s observations from the window of her Washington Mews apartment.  

“The book is very accurate,” Goren said. “Everybody who feeds squirrels in Washington Square Park has a copy.” 

There are reddish squirrels in the Hanging Tree in the northwest corner of the park. Someone told Goren that the squirrels’ color could be because of the reddish sap of the tree, and she thinks that it is a plausible explanation. 

According to Goren, there are only four or five black squirrels in Washington Square Park, but there are more in Stuyvesant Town and in Union Square, although she doesn’t know why. 

“We have the fattest squirrels in the city in Washington Square Park,” Goren noted. “I’ve heard that the squirrels in Union Square are starving because nobody feeds them.” 

There is no law against feeding squirrels. Councilmember Alan Gerson backed an anti-pigeon-feeding ordinance, but that does not apply to squirrels, explained Goren. Goren does not feed the pigeons, but she makes an exception for a white pigeon that somebody named Paz. 

“Paz adopted me, I didn’t adopt Paz,” she said. “She is too well mannered, I think she might be from a pigeon coop.”

Local Parks Department officials are mostly supportive of Goren’s efforts. One Parks worker came by to tell Goren that he had seen a baby squirrel in a nearby tree.  

Squirrels have babies in February or March and then again in August and September. 

“There are new babies now; so the spring babies have to learn how to cope on their own,” Goren explained. “They get pushed out of the nest to make room for the new ones.

“I saw squirrels screwing a few times,” she said. “It was the funniest thing on the planet. They were making babies!”  

Goren estimates that there are between 75 and 100 squirrels in Washington Square Park. She can often tell them apart because of the markings on their faces. 

“People ask if I give them names,” Goren said. “But there are too many for that!”  

She improvised her own sound to attract the squirrels. 

“The sound I make is not a squirrel noise, but they know it’s me and I won’t hurt them. I made it up because it echoes well.”  

Goren feeds the squirrels on the east side of the park, along with what she says are half a dozen other people who do the same. The squirrel feeders split up the park into different sectors, which Goren explains began when the park was under reconstruction. 

During the Washington Square Park phase-one reconstruction, a score of squirrels died, according to Goren. 

“I think it is because years ago they didn’t put rat poison in boxes, it was just loose,” she said. “So maybe it was in the soil when they dug it up.” 

Goren is a popular fixture in Washington Square Park. 

A student from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts recently used footage of Goren hand feeding the squirrels for a film-class project and posted a clip of it online.

“The N.Y.U. film students call me the ‘The Squirrel Whisperer,’” Goren said.  

She is used to posing for pictures with the Washington Square Park squirrels. 

“I am in more pictures taken by foreign tourists than anything. The Italians and the French love to take pictures of me feeding the squirrels.”