News goes nuts for story about squirrel

Friday March 18, 2011

BENNINGTON -- A deadly earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan, a war in Libya with far-reaching economic implications, and a squirrel that attacks people in Bennington -- which one of these items doesn’t appear to belong?

Earlier this week, I wrote an article about a squirrel that reportedly had attacked three people on East Street. I wasn’t surprised when the Vermont Associated Press bureau picked the story up, and I wasn’t too floored to learn that a number of regional papers and blogs mentioned it on their Websites. WCAX and Fox 23 television news crews also made the trek to Bennington; something they don’t do everyday.

When the BBC in London, England called me, I was a little concerned that I was now responsible for one of "those" stories you see on or MSNBC, the ones that make you say, "Really? Is this news?" Or my personal favorite: "Wow, must be a slow news day."

Tuesday, when I wrote it, actually was a little slow, so I dug through the e-mail looking for the e-mail I’d seen from Kristin McDonald the day before about her husband, Kevin, being attacked last week by a gray squirrel while he was shoveling snow.

It had been deleted, but I vaguely remembered Kristin’s last name and the street she lived on, so I was able to find her number in an ancient piece of technology known as a "phone book" and spoke with her husband. A few more calls to state officials and the story was complete.

That’s how most of these off-beat news items start. A local paper runs something it thinks might spark interest, or just fill space; the AP picks it up, other news organizations pick it from them, and away it goes.

It’s not unheard of for a Bennington Banner article to escape the local sphere and be known to people too far away to care longer than it takes them to finish the headline. What’s a little out of the ordinary here is for a media organization like the BBC to call the Banner and set up a radio interview.

I spoke with a London radio host for a few minutes about this squirrel matter. They had me follow what sounded like an interesting bit on the situation in Libya, where rebels are in a war and struggling against the government’s air forces.

It could have been worse; I could have followed a report on the disaster in Japan, which has left thousands dead and the living hoping nuclear plant technicians can prevent a meltdown.

And that, according my old teacher Dan Williams, a journalism professor at Lyndon State College who previously worked for CNN, is right where a story about an attack squirrel is meant to go.

After a series of stories about tragedy and mayhem, people need something to perk them up a little. "Otherwise, the viewer comes away from your report really depressed," said Williams.

I got some insight Thursday concerning the BBC’s attention to this squirrel business. They called the Banner again, this time looking for Kevin McDonald for another interview. I had figured I was the "source of last resort," and the story would die there, but according to a message left for me by Catherine Plane of the BBC, they’ve been having a rash of squirrel attacks over in England, hence their level of interest and desire to get at a primary source.

Dan Williams discussed how stories involving animals will take center stage. He directed my attention to a CNN report from the Japan earthquake coverage about a dog that refused to leave the side of another injured dog. It had all the typical trappings of an "animal in distress" story, and was little different from stories of stranded pets in New Orleans after Katrina, or the coastal wildlife after the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Apparently, when the anchors who did the Japanese dog story followed up on it, they sounded a little embarrassed to Dan’s ears, and felt the need to mention that quite a few humans had perished in the earthquake/tsunami. Maybe they were worried they’d be criticized for supposedly taking away from the human cost by mentioning the animals, or cheaply tugging at the heart strings of animal lovers.

Newsfolk aren’t completely oblivious to how our stories will play out with some readers. When I wrote the squirrel article, I could foresee quite clearly the onslaught of nut-based puns, zany suggestions for dealing with the problem, and of course people wondering why the media doesn’t focus on more important things, like earthquakes and civil wars.

A Google news search for "squirrel Bennington" turns up about 273 hits. Some of the headlines are amusing. While the Banner went with "Residents report attacks by squirrel," some other news media went with "Beware ballistic squirrel," "Attack of the killer squirrel," and "Squirrel goes nuts, terrorizes Vt. neighborhood."

No one has yet photographed the East Street squirrel, but news sites and blogs from Alaska to Europe to Australia ran stock photos of squirrels with red-tinted eyes, vicious looks on their faces, and in some cases rocket launchers and helmets. I suspect the latter are fakes.

There’s not much else to report on this story. I haven’t heard of more attacks, and despite a few calls from random people with theories and advice, I haven’t heard much else about the East Street squirrel -- other than that the neighbors are keeping an eye out, lest it come for them.

Contact Keith Whitcomb at


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