Chicken of the trees | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicken of the trees 

The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin?

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Sullivan doesn't suggest this without caution. He points to the familiar case of the passenger pigeon, once so populous that its flocks blotted out the sky. The species was driven to extinction by habitat loss and hunting, and the last one died in captivity in 1914.

"We as humans have an amazing ability to destroy everything in our path," he says. "As a preindustrial and then industrial society we had a strong need for regulation of firearms and hunting and things like this within our cities. As cities have evolved, as species have adapted, as landscapes have stabilized, we've come to see that there are certain species that do really well amongst us: deer, Canada geese, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. If we could really get over the cultural hang-ups, darn it, we should be eating rats too. And I'm excited about the idea of changing regulations and helping people realize that consumption of wild-born, wild-grown meats is OK, and harvesting of said meats in an urban environment is something we can do in a regulated way, safe for humans and humane for the harvested animal. We can't just have an anarchical harvesting of any game, under any circumstances, in any place. But I don't see why we can't have a regulated harvesting regime of all game of all species in all places, with the understanding that some species will be taken off the list."

The state Department of Natural Resources could regulate the harvesting of urban squirrels for food much in the way it does rural ones: issue licenses and set a daily bag limit (currently five) and seasonal possession limit (ten).

But even if it did, a squirrel is not a deer or a turkey, and though it may taste somewhat similar, it isn't a chicken either. Adult gray squirrels rarely grow over two pounds. Is there enough meat on a squirrel to satisfy any appetite? "A lot of people in the world would look at that carcass and say, 'Hey, that's a bonanza,'" Sullivan suggests.

My job as a food writer takes me to a lot of restaurants that serve rich foods that are hardly necessary, let alone healthy if eaten in excess. And that includes lots of meat. Two years ago I made a concerted effort to change my diet when I was off duty. I mastered portion control, and when not on the job I started eating mostly vegetarian. In that time I lost 35 pounds and I can once again touch my toes without losing my breath. I still love it, but don't crave meat as much anymore. I'm satisfied with less when I do eat it, and I appreciate it more. I'm not even close to endorsing a vegan diet. But collectively Americans, whose per capita meat consumption in 2011 was 216 pounds, could stand to eat a bit less.

Squirrels trapped by removal specialists aren't typically relocated to some paradisiacal nature preserve. They're euthanized. And unlike the squirrels that were ravaging colonial cornfields, nobody's making burgoo out of them.

But if I were to lose this swell gig, I'd need to replace the meat. If it came to that, why couldn't city squirrel be a plentiful, healthy, and nondestructive option?

Well, there are laws standing in the way. In Illinois the eastern gray squirrel is a protected species, along with domestic pigeons, striped skunks, bats, and dozens of other mammals and birds. It is illegal to hunt squirrels with a gun outside of the state-mandated season from August 1 to February 15, and it's illegal to trap them anytime for hunting purposes. And obviously it's illegal to hunt at all within the Chicago city limits—even if it's an animal that's gnawing through your power lines, chewing into your attic, and scrabbling above your head at five in the morning.

So what recourse do you have if squirrels are tormenting you? The city's Animal Care and Control department will remove nuisance wildlife from homes, but only if an officer actually sees it on the premises, which typically precludes removal of the squirrels and raccoons lurking in your attic or walls. In extreme circumstances department officials will leave a trap, and if they catch anything they'll take the animal to a wildlife rehabilitator, says Officer Carey Logan. "But we don't have the manpower to monitor those traps."

A private company with the proper state-issued permits to trap and remove wildlife can take care of that, but it's going to cost you. Brad Reiter of Critter Control of Chicago, the local franchise of the country's largest wildlife removal firm, says he traps more squirrels than any other animal, about 2,000 a year. But that can be expensive. Armando Martinez of Pest Control Chicagoland says if there's more than one squirrel involved, a typical job including house repairs can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000.

For anyone who doesn't take the killing of animals lightly, it should be pointed out that squirrels (and raccoons and skunks and bats and birds) trapped by removal specialists aren't typically relocated to some paradisiacal nature preserve. They're euthanized. And unlike the squirrels that were ravaging colonial cornfields, nobody's making burgoo out of them.

Popular culture is awash in dystopian survivalist fiction and film—World War Z, Contagion, The Road, to name a few recent examples. For the kids there's The Hunger Games. This appetite for apocalyptic anxiety in our diversions is curious, because these are scenarios that with some imagination don't seem any less frightening than those discussed in the documentary Collapse, in which former LAPD cop and prominent chain-smoking doomer Michael Ruppert asserts that the earth's resources have reached their peak ability to sustain industrial society. Grow a garden, he counsels. Save your seeds. The shit is coming down.

Why shouldn't we be at least a little bit paranoid? Last fall the Greater Chicago Food Depository released a report stating that 20.6 percent of Chicagoans are food insecure, meaning over half a million people in the city are unsure where their next meal is coming from, or they're not getting enough to eat every day, or they don't have any place to get it. Not long after, Wall Street reported its worst quarter since the 2008 meltdown, Tyson recalled 131,300 pounds of ground beef in 14 states, and a Listeria outbreak ensued after Colorado-grown cantaloupes were shipped to 25 states, sickening 146 people and killing at least 30. Last month an Associated Press survey of economists, think tanks, and academics reported the U.S. poverty rate is at its highest since 1965—and thanks to this summer of drought, the U.S. Agriculture Department says food prices will rise 3 to 4 percent. Right now, we're unable to pay our mortgages, find jobs, or fill the gas tank. How much longer until we're unable to feed ourselves?

Meanwhile, Alderman Lona Lane wanted to ban chickens in the 18th Ward, collective-food-production incubator Logan Square Kitchen closed in May after enduring 19 inspections over the prior two years from city inspectors who couldn't or wouldn't understand its business model, and police routinely harass pushcart vendors who support their families by cutting up fresh fruit and sprinkling it with lime juice and chili powder. The city remains hostile and uncomprehending toward small-scale private and commercial food producers precisely at a time when the economy needs them the most.

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