The Squirrel Wars: When Denver police took on the squirrels

 Originally Published June 15, 2010

Anyone who has ever lived in Denver or the surrounding cities knows that there are a lot of very large, very vocal, and sometimes quite pushy squirrels living in the neighborhoods and parks, ready to steal food from your picnic or even your car. They brashly and brazenly  flaunt their stolen wares, daring anyone to do anything.

In 1943, a city councilman, tired of these brash furred denizens, decided enough was enough. A dentist in East Denver, Herbert C. Dolph, who sat on the city council as representative for East Denver, truly hated squirrels and their rude behavior. So on November 30, 1943, Dolph pushed a bill through city council banning “anti-social” squirrels from three Denver districts. (Note that socially acceptable and well behaved squirrels were still welcome throughout Denver.) This bill stated that if a resident called in a squirrel complaint, the police were obligated to go out and deal with this culprit. Should said squirrel be found guilty – police officers were afforded the opportunity to play judge and jury in squirrel cases – the officers were authorized to “abate” the offender.

Of course, this created an outcry. Squirrels can be a nuisance, but so is gunfire in the early hours of the morning, and much more distressing to the citizenry as well! Local conservationists were in an uproar. The Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs, The Federation of Garden Clubs and The Colorado State Conservation Council all went to the city council, pointing out some pertinent facts:

It’s really hard to tell which squirrel is the guilty party.
Innocent squirrels were dying because of the behavior of one bad boy (or girl).
And most pertinent, it was a waste of police and tax resources that could be put to better use.

However, the ordinance passed, and Mayor Stapleton refused to veto the bill.

Paul Atkinson, one of Mr. Dolph’s constituents, was so incensed by this activity, that in 1945, he sued the Denver Police department for $1000 for the indiscriminant shooting of squirrels, which was behavior counter to the ordinance. Calling them the Squirrel Shooting Squad, Atkinson pointed out specific officers guilty of this offense. He also pointed out that the ordinance was unconstitutional, because it was singling out certain squirrels living in certain districts, rather than being applied to all the districts.

However, Atkinson’s efforts failed, and on September 8th, 1946, the district court upheld the ruling, stating that the city had the power to deal with nuisances, and that squirrels were the property of the state, not individuals with individual rights.

The ordinance was finally repealed in 1956.

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