Subject. Object.

I’ve been feeling an enhanced sense of purpose lately, as if my little life is part of some grand experiment.  Then I encountered a journal article that explained why:  Evidence is mounting that squirrels all over the world — not just my squirrel, Chloe — are systematically training humans to provide them with their favorite foods.

The latest study, published a few months back in the International Journal of Squirrel Studies — or maybe it was Animal Cognition — proves that grey squirrels can quickly remember how to solve a problem they have not seen for almost two years, or roughly a year longer than I can.  The University of Exeter researchers were led by someone named Dr. Pizza, which for a second made me think I was being pranked, but then I read her full name — Dr. Pizza Ka Yee Chow — and knew this was a serious study undertaken by serious scientists.

In the experiment, five squirrels — Arnold, Leonard,  Sarah, Simon and Suzy — were given a task identical to one they had tried 22 months earlier, in which they had to press levers to get hazelnuts. In that initial test, the squirrels took an average of eight seconds to secure the nut on their first attempt, but just two seconds by their final try.

Retested nearly two years later, they took an average of just three seconds to get a hazelnut, and an additional two to shell it in preparation for making hazelnut baklava, the aim of the next experiment (Chow, PKY  et al. forthcoming).  And that’s not all:  The squirrels hesitated only briefly before applying the same technique to an apparatus that looked different but employed the same lever-press mechanism to deliver hazelnuts.

While grey squirrels are well-known for their memory in retrieving stored nuts, the new study demonstrates an entirely different kind of memory that pertains to techniques and is retained much longer than a single feeding season, the researchers concluded.  Meanwhile,  the squirrels concluded that humans can readily be trained to place easily obtainable hazelnuts in not just one but a variety of contraptions that require no novel effort.

Apparently, squirrels of all species are doing experiments like this all over the world. My little Colorado town is 4, 645 miles from Exeter, England and Chloe is a fox squirrel working not in a laboratory but a natural environment. (Fox squirrels are similar to grey squirrels, but superior in “overall cuteness,” according to a squirrel researcher at the University of California-Berkeley.)

In just four short months,  Chloe has trained me to offer peanuts in a variety of outdoor locations and to provide ingress to the peanut mother lode in my kitchen through various windows and doors.  Previously, I’d demonstrated my abilities only upstairs,  but last week she taught me to open the outside basement door when she appeared. Whereupon she ran inside and upstairs to the kitchen, appearing shortly thereafter at the top of the basement stairs, peanut in mouth, before heading down and back outside. chloetaircrp

My cats are freaked out by Chloe’s boldness — they run from her —  but I am charmed, as these squirrels well know.  After all, researchers — even those named Dr. Pizza — don’t typically name their animal subjects; these critters know how to get to us.  For instance,  when I’m near, Chloe prefers that I hand her a peanut rather than just grabbing one herself;  she understands the human desire to feel in control,  indulged formally and at great length by the Exeter squirrels.

I’m not sure where this is going to end, but I’m not worried: Chloe is not just cute and smart, but patient:  She has taught me through careful repetition that she likes lightly roasted peanuts, not darker; that walnut pieces are acceptable substitutes, but not pistachios; that healthier foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables are a bitter disappointment and — just yesterday — to put hazelnuts and phyllo on my shopping list.   I think she’s ready to take me to the next step.




  1. Hilary Thornton · · Reply

    Dr. Pizza Chow is female.


    1. Thank you. I made the correction, having had no previous experience with “Pizza” as a name for an animate object. 🙂


  2. And it is believed that only humans have souls but not animals!


    1. Not by anyone I respect. 🙂 Thanks for reading!


  3. Cate, you are smart and funny. And I love that you make me smile. And think.


    1. Why thank you, my friend! You’ve made me laugh out loud more than once, so you have returned the favor.


    1. Glad you enjoyed it!


  4. A lovely post and pictures! Chloe is super cute and smart 🙂


    1. She thinks so, too. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your appreciation!


  5. And Chloe’s research project: the use of peanuts in the training of humans! Get ready for your closeup.


    1. I hope to be found superior in “overall cuteness” to other humans. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Michele Sproull · · Reply

    Only YOU would be able to find such research. Of course they have taken over. Better squirrels than skunks.


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