A typical Austin College student might have an Instagram account on which they post the occasional selfie or picture with a friend. This Austin College student is no different — but the friends they post with — are squirrels. I recently interviewed the Instagram admin for @squirrel.watch, an account entirely devoted to the squirrels of Austin College. This account has cultivated a real community of AC students who share a passion for the rodents. Squirrel Watch has over 300 followers, and boasts that squirrels are “‘Roos in their own right.”
Squirrel Watch has been up and running for a year and a half. The admin tells me the origin story of his hairy friends page, “it started out as a joke to my sister… I started an Instagram, basically just to make her laugh. I kept taking pictures of squirrels and posting them, and over the next two months, it actively became something I enjoyed. I have always liked photography.
I asked the admin about the follower account, which is roughly 24% of Austin College’s student population. The admin told me that this came as a shock to them, “I didn’t even know I had that many [followers] until I checked a couple of weeks ago. It was crazy, it just shot up like that — over time, gradually. I [first] started following campus accounts for different official [activities], and some students I knew. I built it up [the follower count] for about a month.”
However, this sudden fame does not come without rivalry, as Squirrel Watch competes with another Austin College squirrel account. “There’s an account — @squirrelsofac — they had way more followers than me. They had lots of engagement from official college accounts. They had professors comment on their things! I was the new kid in town,” the admin told me, with a tone of despair in his voice.
Squirrel Watch recently posted a screenshot of an invite to a group-chat of other squirrel accounts, with the caption: “I’m moving up in the world!”. I asked the admin about this group chat, only to learn that the passion for tailed ‘Roos runs far deeper than just at AC, “[w]e mostly talk about squirrels… our different campuses, and the different variety of squirrels. Apparently LSU has really friendly squirrels — AC could never! They are used to being socialized. They are like wildlife at parks, they become less and less wild as time goes on… They eat cafeteria scraps.”
I asked the admin how long he had been in contact with other college squirrel accounts, to which he replied that this is a new venture for him: “This socializing is very recent. I occasionally reached out to other campus accounts and several owners of rehabilitated squirrel pets.”
There are fifteen members of this group-chat. The chat requires a member inside to add another account if someone else wants to participate. “Notice how they went for me and not @squirrelsofac”, the admin jokingly notes. And it is just a joke. The admin admits that there used to be a rivalry, but not any longer: “At this point, I’m doing this for myself… I just care about sharing and putting it out there.”
I spoke to the admin about a recent talk that occurred at Austin College by Dr. Jessica Healy, “Have Squirrels, Will Travel: Adventures in International Hibernation Research”. The lecture was on November 6th, 2019 in Mabee Hall (in the Wright Campus Center). The admin of Squirrel Watch attended this lecture, “several of my friends were actually researchers with her and studied squirrel populations throughout the U.S.; they went in a line North from Texas — from Sherman to Oklahoma, then to Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas”.
I asked the admin if they felt they had influenced the campus interest in squirrel research or in attending the lecture, and they bashfully admitted that they think they could have: “I should hope I’ve had some influence. I do feel like I’m part of campus in a larger way. I’m not a student who really gets into extracurricular activities, so this is my forward facing campus life personality. I like to have that alter ego.”
The lecture actually used an image posted by Squirrel Watch, but didn’t credit them, ““I saw that they included a picture that I had taken. I was just so proud and just so shocked actually, to see a snapshot of mine up there on the big screen — on the projector. It was really rewarding.”
The photo in question was of a famous campus squirrel — an albino. The admin noted, “[i]t was bittersweet because it [the photo] was of Caspar, the white squirrel. He was very active in the past few years, but some Red Shouldered Hawks have moved into the area… They probably took out Caspar… He was a shining beacon to hawks, he very likely died, and I hope it was quick.”
The hawk issue is one that has captivated the attention of students on campus. Often, if you’re strolling around the campus, you will be able to see a student or two staring up at a hawk flying overhead. The admin of the page had a lot to say about the recent influx of predators to squirrels: “I’m of course saddened by it, I have seen quite a few dead squirrels. But it’s nature taking its course — it’s how life works. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a reality you have to come to terms with. A lot of squirrels that have been [here in the past] are not [here] anymore. The population seems to have been declining.”
The admin identifies the primary threats to squirrels on campus as being hawks, cars and the changing seasons, “with Grand Avenue and Brocket right next to our campus, there’s gonna be some hit and runs, so to speak.”
I inquired if perhaps these threats are why our squirrels at AC are less active than squirrels at other campuses, squirrels that eat out of the hands of students. The admin explained, “squirrels don’t run around in packs or anything like that. It has to be a case by case basis: an individual squirrel realizes it’s easy to get food from these people [students] and then other squirrels start doing it, and you get a pattern of behavior. With AC, if I had to speculate, we are a smaller campus… You get that [squirrel sociability] at a bigger campus; there’s more students and more squirrels, and more opportunities to have them socialized.”
The admin compared Austin College to UT, “UT has a great squirrel account, they even have a [squirrel] yearbook… They’ve gone all out — they have almost 9000 followers by now. They have consistent engagement on their posts.” The owner of the account seems to be wishful for more activity on their account in terms of student engagement and interest. This hobby has blossomed into a community of like-minded individuals who bond over the furry friends in our campus trees.
This account has helped the owner at AC in terms of building this community: “It helps me care a little more about the campus and I like that it keeps me in contact with people that I otherwise wouldn’t meet or wouldn’t know of. There’s a lot of names and usernames that come up with post notifications. There’s a lot of people who like my stuff and support it.”
Squirrel Watch will be passed down, as the owner is bound to graduate. What happens then? “I’d like all of my old posts to still be around, in case I feel like reminiscing. I would like to see an expansion of it and more campus involvement, like we are trying to build up with our group-chats. I think us campus squirrel accounts have to stick together.”
Ultimately, the message of Squirrel Watch is one of passion and community rooted in the cute, little guys who steal our scraps and bury their acorns.
Visit https://www.instagram.com/squirrel.watch/ to see the account yourself.