One year ago, just before the rush of the Fourth of July weekend, the National Park Service posted a somewhat sarcastic PSA on Instagram about not feeding the most vicious animal at the Grand Canyon National Park: Otospermophilus variegatus. Not the razor-toothed mountain lion, nor the 700-pound bull elk, and not even one of the Canyon’s five species of rattlesnake … no, they were talking about the rock squirrel. Grand Canyon park rangers have regularly told visitors that squirrels are the most dangerous animals in the park.
Now, I’ve never been bitten by a squirrel. But I was once bitten by a very grumpy rabbit, and I imagine it’s a similar experience—except that, unlike ground squirrels in the American West, my sister’s pet bunny was not a reservoir for plague. (That’s right—plague! It’s not just for prairie dogs!) Leading up to one of the Grand Canyon’s busiest weekends of the year, I wanted to know how risky these creatures really are (read: how worried should we be about, you know, the plague). So I reached out to someone on the frontlines of The Squirrel Problem: Jay Bawcom, a nurse practitioner at the Grand Canyon clinic. And to my surprise, he seems to think the squirrels are getting an undeserved bad rap.
The first thing he made clear was that rock squirrels earned their “most dangerous animal” title through quantity, not quality, of bites. Injurious interactions with squirrels occur with “exponentially higher frequency than injuries from any other animals” in the park; even so, he said, on a typical weekend his clinic only sees two to three bites per day. Park rangers may treat more in the field—in fact, busy weekends might see as many as 30 bites—but usually, the bites are nothing to worry about. The danger is real, but it’s not very big.
Bawcom also told me that my fear of squirrel-transmitted plague was likely blown out of proportion. It’s possible, he admitted, but it would require more contact with a squirrel than a quick bite-and-run. That’s because the squirrel itself wouldn’t give you the plague, its fleas would. And while a flea might jump from the infected squirrel during an encounter, Bawcom himself had never dealt with plague in his five years at the clinic. Similarly, he was unconcerned with the possibility of rabies, saying that to the best of his knowledge there had never been a documented case in Arizona of a squirrel with rabies, nor had the CDC documented a squirrel transmitting rabies to a human. (The unfortunate reason for this is that most squirrels don’t come away alive from an attack by another rabid animal.) He noted that “the vast majority of legitimate public health sources” say that squirrel bites are “not particularly concerning,” and that most of the cautionary information online comes from exterminators’ and animal control companies’ websites.
So, when a bite victim comes into his clinic, Bawcom’s first thought is not to swab for deadly diseases. Instead, treating a squirrel bite means following basically the same procedure as treating a papercut: clean the wound, slap a Band-Aid on it, and call it good. Bites almost never require stitches, although because squirrels are generally biting fingers (that’s where they’re used to finding food), they can bleed heavily. Bawcom recalled the drama of treating an infant who was “covered in blood”—the source wound was only a 3-millimeter bite on the child’s finger. Certainly scary for both child and parent, but not exactly life-threatening.
While feeding the wildlife has always been a problem at national parks—and, indeed, is illegal—smartphones and social media have likely exacerbated the temptation to get up close and personal with seemingly tame animals. I feel obligated to share this endearingly low-budget video that the Grand Canyon National Park created about taking selfies with squirrels. (No, really, watch the video!) Bawcom mentioned that he sees a lot of visitors from cities and urban areas where the opportunity to interact with wildlife is limited, and a cute little squirrel that appears friendly seems like a great photo op. But hand-feeding a wild animal will probably end in tears, not likes. (The National Park Service includes “internet/media fame for a very undesirable reason” in its list of risks from feeding wildlife, right beside “infectious diseases such as rabies, Bubonic plague, or Hantavirus.”)
When I asked Bawcom what he wanted to say to park visitors to prevent further bites, he had two words: “Be attentive.” He estimates half the bites he sees come from people deliberately feeding the squirrels, and that’s one thing. But the other half come from people who are not paying attention, and he sees them as victimized by the first half. A bystander enjoying their lunch dangles their hand to the side of the bench and—wham! Suddenly and without warning, squirrel teeth sink into flesh, all because the squirrels have been conditioned to see hands as food sources. From the squirrel’s perspective, any limp hand “is impersonating a food source, even if it doesn’t have an actual Clif Bar or anything.”
For what it’s worth, Bawcom believes there could be a solution. When the park was closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, he took a walk on the trails and noticed a suspicious lack of squirrels. Although he would normally be nervous about taking off his backpack on the trails, since squirrels know we tend to keep our lunches in there, his pack remained untouched by their little paws. At that point, the park had been empty of visitors for a few weeks, and the squirrels weren’t frequenting the trails either. Squirrels, it seems, can be reconditioned to stop seeing humans as a food source.
While that’s certainly good news for hikers and national park enthusiasts, even city dwellers would do well to take note. As climate change forces wild animals out of their natural habitats, we have already begun to interact with them in potentially dangerous ways—dangerous for them and for us. As a Californian, I am acutely aware of the misinformation spread every wildfire season to leave out food and water for animals fleeing the blaze. Between natural disasters and good ol’ urban expansion, we’re all going to need to learn how to interact safely with displaced animals—and not just hungry squirrels.
In the end, Bawcom said, while a squirrel bite isn’t fun for a human, it’s even worse for the squirrel. Wildlife shouldn’t be dependent on human food in the first place, and squirrels can’t digest many human foods. As the National Park Service explained in this informative post, feeding the furry creatures has led to “several squirrel fatalities.” So, if you’re taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, zip up your backpack, pay attention to your surroundings, and keep your hands to yourself. Otherwise, you may face their wrath.