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Monday, January 24, 2022

St. Paul’s Mears Park’s squirrels force a subtle holiday light display

There’s a war going on in Downtown St. Paul over Christmas, and it’s being waged by fat, flamboyant squirrels.

At Mears Park in Lowertown, squirrels are overfed and often relentless. Some visitors, against city ordinances and all advice about not feeding wildlife, throw them junk food or encourage them to do tricks like a pet.

“I’ve seen people with food in their hand, and they try to make squirrels jump up and take the food,” said Erie Kondo resident Lee Ann Labour, of Mears Park. “They try and lead them around the park. A guy was trying to get one to jump on him. It’s a little disturbing.”

Squirrel chewing on holiday lights

Squirrels are fat, bold and accustomed to being fed by people, as of Monday, December 20, 2021 at Mears Park in St. Paul’s Lowertown. They’re chewing up the stars at Christmas lights, so this holiday season Mears Park isn’t as lit up as usual. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Labour has special reason to resent the squirrels — or “tree rats” as she calls them — this year, and those who love them.

As co-chair of Friends of Mears Park, she’s teamed up with the vendor who wires holiday lights throughout the tree canopy. The $27,400 light display, which went up in late November, had to be lowered and reconfigured this year as Mears Park squirrels chew through wires, which are coated with polylactic acid, which apparently makes corn. Key is a tantalizing derivative of sugar.

After a disastrous 2020, the seller declined to repeat the experience.

“Our seller reuses lights, and they can’t keep those lights on just to re-destroy squirrels,” Labour said. “I don’t blame them.”

Efforts to persuade the city to relocate the squirrels have not gone away. But Christmas (and Hanukkah) is simply saved.

canopy lights gone

The strings of decorative canopy lights are gone. Instead, along the park’s walkways, a projector creates kaleidoscope-like moving images of large white snowflakes that are transmitted, coming together and falling apart. Birch trees are lit with base lights that bathe them in green and blue.

It’s a kid-friendly winter wonderland at eye level, but little pizzazz from a bird’s-eye view.

Read Also:  What does it mean to save the area?

“I get some Facebook stuff, and it’s very negative, and I understand,” Labour said. “People look down from their apartment or apartment and they want to see the twinkling lights. Well, we can’t have twinkling lights. Maybe it was or nothing. It’s gorgeous when you walk through it, but it’s not as beautiful from above.”

Some residents have complained that the park feels less safe at night because the gazebo and walkway lights have been turned off so as not to spoil the holiday display. Labour said he is in contact with St. Paul Parks and Recreation, which will turn the walkway lights back on.

Other downtown attractions, such as Rice Park and Union Depot, use the same holiday lighting vendor — Afton-based Savatry — but with a lower tree canopy, less impacted by squirrel damage.

‘The fastest squirrel you’ve ever seen’

St. Paul's Mears Park's squirrels force a subtle holiday light display
(Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

In Lowertown, “we have a bunch of squirrels living there because people feed them, and they’re the fattest squirrels you’ve ever seen. It probably started getting worse 10 years ago,” says Friends of Mears Park John Manilow, a longtime volunteer, said. “It was a constant battle. We have to go inside every week and have the lights repaired. We will come in and two or three trees will come out. Picked it up to the point where there would be so many trees, the installer wouldn’t do it.

Major donors to Friends of Mears Park this year included the Erie Condo Association, Bigos Management, Securian, Bulldog Lowertown, St. Paul’s Saints, The Buttered Tin, Big River Pizza, First Service Residential, TCD Receivables Management, St. Paul’s. Parks Conservancy, St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation and “a lot of individual contributions that were anywhere from $10 to $300,” Labour said.

Most of the money went into lighting, as well as the maintenance of new plants and parks.

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