Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 7, in which we examine Spunky Squirrel.
January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day. While I hold dear to my cartoon-loving heart Secret Squirrel (and his sidekick Morocco Mole), and enjoy the music of Squirrel Nut Zipper, there is one squirrel who stands above the rest—Spunky Squirrel. And I more than appreciate him. I want to celebrate him as he approaches his thirtieth birthday.
Spunky was the brainchild of the American Forestry Association (now American Forests) in 1981. They wanted a symbol for their Urban Forestry Program that would appeal to children. Wisely, they turned to artist Rudy Wendelin for help in developing the character. Rudy had been the primary artist for Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl before retiring from the U.S. Forest Service in 1973. When Hank DeBruin of the AFA contacted Rudy in September 1981 about creating Spunky, he offered Rudy some ideas about Spunky’s apparel, which you can see in the letter below. But dressing him in blue jeans, a t-shirt, running shoes, and a cap that looks like a beret might have made him look more like a confused Frenchman than a hip American youth. (Props to Hank for suggesting Adidas running shoes, though. He anticipated by four years rap group Run-D.M.C. making Adidas popular among urban youth. Maybe Run took a fashion cue from Spunky.)
Rudy’s initial try, though, garnered some ribbing from Hank. “Grandpa Squirrel” was not what they were after.
In August 1982, AFA introduced Spunky and his slogan “Care for Trees!” to its members in the magazine. The ad copy is written by Spunky and gives his backstory—how he was born uptown and lived in an oak tree in a park. But when the tree got sick and had to be removed, he and his family had trouble finding another tree to call their own. The ad then goes on to extol the many benefits of urban forests.
That October, Spunky made his first public appearance at the second National Urban Forestry Conference, which was sponsored in part by the AFA, in Cincinnati. Spunky was there to hand out tree seedlings to kids, who “thronged” him as he made his way from the stage to greet them. Soon after his introduction, Spunky became the de facto mascot of Arbor Day. At Milwaukee’s Arbor Day event in 1983, he was made an honorary citizen!
Spunky’s popularity quickly took off, especially after he was introduced to kindergarten, first and second graders in Weekly Reader. He also made an appearance on TV’s “Romper Room,” where he told children all over America how to improve the environment in their cities and towns. The usual merchandise followed—Spunky Squirrel t-shirts, balloons, flying disks, buttons—even Spunky Squirrel bike packs and plastic tumblers.
Part of his message included telling people how they could protect their trees from the gypsy moth, which continues to wreak havoc on eastern hardwoods. He graced the pages of a workbook about the gypsy moth published by the AFA and the U.S. Forest Service. Rudy even created a gypsy moth character. The AFA made ads for gypsy moth information featuring Spunky available to newspapers in affected areas, probably for free.
It’s not known how long Spunky remained in the public eye—perhaps just a couple of years. Like so many forest characters, Spunky soon found work hard to come by, and was reduced to making appearances in odd places, like at a city function in Santa Rosa, California, in 2006. We can’t confirm it, but it looks like he’s had some plastic surgery done. (The things an older squirrel must do today to compete against younger squirrels for spokes-animal work. Spunky’s barely recognizable.)
In Oklahoma, though, his name and slogan “Care for Trees!” live on in an annual poster contest. And he’ll always live on in our hearts.