The year is 1918, and American troops are facing the Germans in deadly trench warfare on the Western Front. That isn’t the only place war has taken hold, the Great War is raging all over the world, and California is no different. There, along the far, far Western front, California state horticulturist George H. Hecke called up California’s most precious natural resource: children.
Their enemy was a pest unlike any other the state had ever seen, and Hecke decided their time had come. The squirrels had to go.
The new children’s crusade called for a seven-day operation whereby California schoolchildren would attack the vicious squirrel army (often depicted wearing the pointed “Hun” helmet worn by the German army at the time). When the students weren’t creating passive killing fields by spreading rodent poisons where squirrels were known to gather food the kiddos were encouraged to form “a company of soldiers in your class or in your school” to go out and meet the enemy head-on, hitting the furry huns where they lived. “Squirrel Week” was on.
“All the killing devices of modern warfare will be used in the effort to annihilate the squirrel army, including gas,” wrote the Lompoc Journal. “Don’t wait to be drafted.”
The U.S. government made every effort to link the anti-squirrel effort to the war effort, referring to the California Ground Squirrel as “the Kaiser’s aides” while showing the squirrels decked out in enemy uniforms, wearing the Iron Cross. The government even distributed recipes for barley coated with the deadly poison strychnine.
The state had a point. Otospermophilus Beecheyi, also known as the California Ground Squirrel, was not only a pest to farms and stored food, but was also known to carry certain diseases, such as bubonic plague. More importantly, the rodent ate nearly 0 million in crops and stored food in California (using today’s dollar values), food which could otherwise go to the doughboys fighting the World War raging in Europe. Children were even asked to bring in squirrel tails to school to show off their confirmed kills.
The schoolchildren did not disappoint. In all, More than 104,000 squirrels met their furry maker during Squirrel Week 1918 – but that was just one battle. The war raged on as long as the War in Europe raged on. California children continued killing the squirrels for a long time after Squirrel Week. The effort did not have lasting consequences for the squirrels at large, however. Today the California Ground Squirrel’s conservation status is the lowest at “least concern.”
Least concern, or lulling us into a false sense of security before counter-attacking? You decide.