Tourism promoters in the Town of Exeter aren’t feeling so bushy-tailed after learning they no longer have the market cornered on white squirrels.
In a nutshell, at least one of the rare rodents has appeared in Sarnia, flipping its tail at an unusual tourist attraction Exeter has marketed for decades.
Sarnia nature photographer Ronny D’Haene took shots of a white squirrel in Germain Park on Oct. 7 after hearing about it on social media. According to some reports, the central city park is actually home to two white squirrels.
Normally, the Eastern grey squirrel has two colour phases, grey and black. Occasionally, though, a genetic aberration will produce an animal with a white coat, though they are very rare, experts say.
The squirrel in D’Haene’s photos is not an albino, which is characterized by pink eyes.
Occasionally, white squirrels are spotted in Ontario outside of Exeter, said Brittany Wise, manager of the town’s Business Improvement Area (BIA).
“But I’ve heard populations will never be the same as they are in Exeter,” she said. “Scientifically, a white squirrel that mates with a black squirrel will likely have black babies. So your white squirrel may not have a big chance of having white babies.”
Wise isn’t sure how many white squirrels live in Exeter, a town of about 4,500 north of London, but sightings are commonplace.
“I saw one just this morning,” she said.
White squirrels have been a feature of Exeter since at least 1912 but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new resident pointed out they’re actually quite rare. The town began capitalizing on them, selling itself as “Home of the White Squirrel” and selling White Squirrel merchandise in local hardware stores and gift shops.
“We get quite a few squirrel spotters,” said Wise. “I’ve personally talked to people who drove from as far away as New York State and Chicago just to see one.”
The New York residents spent several hours hunting for a white squirrel and dropped into Wise’s office when they came up empty-handed.
“They were pretty upset,” she said. “So I directed them to the specific residential area near our downtown where most of the white squirrels seem to live. A little while later they were driving along, waving and honking their horn.”
Like most visitors, they’d been successful.
“They come here to see the squirrels and then discover lots of other great things about Exeter,” Wise said. “It’s what we have that makes us different, so that’s what we go with.”
Not everyone in town loves them, however.
“It’s a funny thing,” she said. “We have a white squirrel costume and some people like to see our mascot at special events. But there are some people who just hate rodents.”
As for Sarnia stealing some of Exeter’s thunder, Wise is unconcerned.
“I’ve heard folks in places like Seaforth and Grand Bend say they’ve seen a white squirrel there. And there’s an area of Toronto that has a population of albino squirrels.
“But Exeter has a strong population. We can’t always guarantee a sighting but they sure are prevalent.”