People in Olney are nuts about squirrels—snow-white squirrels, specifically. (To be precise, these are albino squirrels, as retired college instructor John Stencel will remind you.)
Two adorn the city welcome signs. One is on police officers’ uniform patches. A bright-eyed and bushy-tailed couple is depicted on a panel outside the Holiday Motel and Restaurant, their tails curling above to form a heart. And the real thing is practically everywhere you look. You just have to know where, and when.
Coming face to whiskers with one of these critters is like meeting a Shetland pony… the ordinary becomes extraordinary! Imagine your typical grey squirrel in white mink, with translucent pink ears and even pink claws. And, those eyes…
Matt Smith can testify. He lives in Naperville, near Chicago. “Pretty much everywhere you’ll see a squirrel. But these are like you’d only see in a zoo,” says Matt, who with mom Deann has journeyed to the Richland County seat the last four Octobers. To help count.
Counting squirrels? No, this isn’t like herding cats. (More on cats later.)
In 1977, Stencel started estimating squirrel numbers by enlisting resident volunteers and his Olney Central College students. For one thing, it demonstrated concepts like genetic drift and the impact of recessive genes in a population said to have been discovered here in 1902.
But for people carrying a clipboard, map and legend about 7 a.m. on October’s first three Saturdays, it’s just plain fun.
“It’s at an hour I don’t normally move on Saturday,” says Jean Weber, who for 10 years with husband Tom has surveyed a route of a few blocks in an hour or so, marking down grey and white squirrels, plus predators. Foxes are on the list, but cats are the real problem.
“They’re supposed to be kept inside,” says volunteer Barb Roberts, with frustration. Yes, people here are seriously nuts about squirrels: There’s a stiff fine for running one over. BB gun-toting kids should shoot cans, or else.
Belinda Henton, a retired Olney city clerk, rehabs injured and abandoned squirrels for release into the woods. Volunteers say she does a fantastic job reminding them, producing maps and averaging the counts. New recruits are always welcome.
“You know it’s going to be a good day when you’re on your way to work and see a white squirrel,” Henton says.
Why not put this trip on your bucket list? The White Squirrel count happens every year over the first three Saturdays of October, and f course, albino squirrels aren’t Olney’s only attraction: CLICK HERE to see for yourself, or call 618-395-7302 x3 to sign up!