Albino Squirrels Inspire More than Stares in Oberlin Students
A sighting of albino squirrels scurrying around Tappan Square has always been an undeniable delight for Oberlin students and residents. Each one of us marvels at the rare sightings of our unique furry friends, no matter how Scrooge-like or carefree we’re feeling.
At a school that champions progressivism and community service over elitism and alma mater pride, rejecting the formation of secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones or the perpetuation of cutesy traditions like Wellesley’s Flower Day, the albino squirrels might serve as our humble, no-strings-attached version of school spirit.
For many other schools and towns, pride for albino squirrel populations has spawned websites and societies. The self-proclaimed “White Squirrel Towns” include Kenton, Tennessee, which boasts up to 200 white squirrels; Olney, Illinois, the “Home of the White Squirrel,” in which legislation grants squirrels the right of way when crossing the street; Marionville, Missouri and Brevard, North Carolina. (Check out http://www.roadsideamerica.com/set/squirrels.html.)
The Albino Squirrel Preservation Society, whose motto is “In the constant pursuit of albino squirrel rights,” is a worldwide organization with chapters at the University of Texas, University of North Texas, University of Pennsylvania, University of Western Ontario, Cambridge University, Texas A&M University, Illinois State University, The Juilliard School of Music and ASPS High School Chapters. Why isn’t Oberlin on the list?
The society’s creed is, “I pledge to uphold the objects of the Albino Squirrel Preservation Society, to foster compassion and goodwill towards albino squirrels, and to dedicate myself to the protection of all squirrels, especially those that are albino.”
The website, albinosquirrel.com, provides a membership application and suggests selling flyers and stickers as a way to promote your local chapter of the ASPS. Suggested activities include squirrel feeding days and information sessions to provide awareness about the dangers albinism poses for these squirrels, who are more susceptible to predators because of their inability to camouflage themselves.
So how does Oberlin College’s sense of squirrel pride manifest itself? Biology chair Roger Laushman answered some of my questions about albino squirrels such as: How can you tell if a white squirrel is an albino? What risks does albinism pose to squirrels at Oberlin? And, how rare are albino squirrels?
Laushman debunked the common misconception that one can distinguish between albino squirrels and white squirrels by eye color: Many believe that an albino has red eyes and a white squirrel has brown eyes. Albinism is characterized by a gene for a lack of pigmentation, and this gene can express itself in different areas. For instance, one squirrel’s albinism might express itself in a lack of pigmentation in its fur but not in its eye color.
As far as albino squirrels being greater targets for predators, the ASPS would have us believe that the predator population in Tappan Square is pretty small. This factor, coupled with Oberlin’s small-town, isolated setting, which leads to inbreeding, results in a greater proliferation of albino squirrels. It seems our albino squirrels are here to stay.
So what of their existence here, beyond adding cute perks to our day? While surfing the web, I stumbled upon the Oberlin College Center for Albino Squirrel Research: Evidence-Based Squirrel Ethnography Paradigms for a Connected World, at www.oberlin.edu/squirrel, which might be the best example of the greater symbolism the albino squirrel holds for Oberlin.
On the website, the center explains its purpose: “While tongue-in-cheek — and hopefully both entertaining and informative — our Center has always had a serious mission: to increase young alumni involvement in Oberlin College.”
The Center has practically nothing to do with albino squirrels. Unlike the chapters of the Albino Squirrel Preservation Society, it hosts no squirrel feeding sessions, sells no stickers or flyers and certainly doesn’t perform any “squirrel research.” It is basically a promotion for the Oberlin Fund, seeking donations from Oberlin alumni.
Funds can be donated to support the Young Alumni Internship Fund’s many causes: to help students pursue unpaid or low-paying internships; the Helping Hands Fund, overseen by the Multicultural Resource Center, which encourages student leadership in various pre-professional and academic endeavors; the wind power initiative that will help make the campus even more environmentally friendly; the Conservatory dean’s fund that helps Con students travel to competitions; South basement rehearsal space for extracurricular performances; and the Lorain County Scholarship that supports a student from Lorain County.
The Center assures its donors: “Remember, no matter where you decide to donate, we, and the squirrels, benefit from your generosity.” The website features photos and bios of a diverse group of Oberlin students (“Student Interns”) who serve as examples of how one’s donations might benefit Oberlin students who are supposed to be like the albino squirrels, unique and here to be appreciated. They, too are symbols of Oberlin, a school that prides itself on its diversity and inclusiveness.
Still, I was confused about the organization and the function of these student interns. Had they directly benefited from alumni donations? I approached College junior Misha Davidoff, one of the “student interns” and asked him for his perspective on the organization.
“What do you do as an intern?” I asked.
“Nothing. They just asked me one day if they could take my picture and use me for their website. In fact, I’ve been e-mailing them (firstname.lastname@example.org) repeatedly requesting that they take me off their website, and nobody will e-mail me back.”
Davidoff is also not receiving any financial aid.
Whatever this Center is, Oberlin’s albino squirrels are unique to Tappan Square and certainly have a strong following here.