Illinois town pays tribute to albino squirrels

Sunday, October 13, 2002

OLNEY, Ill. -- For a century now, an unlikely colony of albino rodents has made this prairie town a bit squirrelly.

Olney's police officers celebrate the town's 200 white squirrels with big patches on their uniforms. Its city clerk has turned her home into a squirrel hospital. And a festival Saturday honored the fair furballs with a 5K "scamper," the unveiling of a monument and a "squirrel blessing" by a priest.

"So they will prosper," explained City Clerk Belinda Henton, 43, otherwise known as The Squirrel Lady.

The squirrel colony is one of three known in North America, said John Stencel, a retired zoology professor who has studied the squirrels for 36 years. They are all white, with pink eyes.

Other colonies are in Marionville, Mo., and Kenton, Tenn. "But this is the nuttiest place," Stencel said.

The town takes protecting the critters seriously. Not only does state law ban taking white squirrels, but city ordinances call for fines of up to $750 for anyone who kills, captures or harasses any squirrel, white or otherwise.

Roads have marked squirrel crossings at high-risk squash zones. An ordinance even calls for cats to be kept on leashes, although Officer Tim Dunahee admitted, "We don't really enforce that one."

Henton's telephone is the 911 line for injured squirrels, which she nurses back to health in cages in her home. She's cared for up to 11 at once, including a "baby" that needed feeding every two hours. "They need a lot of warmth and togetherness," she said.

Squirrels with the mutated gene that robs them of their pigment are born wherever squirrels are, but they are rare. Stencel said it's a mystery how the albino colony has endured in such prolific numbers since 1902, when the squirrels were first spotted in Olney, a town of about 9,000 about 120 miles east of St. Louis.

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