Always remember, if you give a squirrel a GoPro … you’re going to get some squirrelly images. November 9 was a normal Sunday in Westmount Park in the Canadian city of Montreal, complete with the ambient sounds of traffic and children at play.
That is, until a gray squirrel decided to dash up a tree with a GoPro video camera, giving us a cheeky look at his arboreal perspective. (Related: “5 Surprising Facts About Squirrels [Hint: They Make Jerky].”) The squirrel’s antics were no accident, but were the work of lawyer David Freiheit, who had the idea of combining a GoPro, a piece of bread, and a squirrel. The rest is Internet history.
National Geographic spoke with Freiheit to get the inside scoop on how the video came to be, his thoughts on squirrel selfies, and his advice on not getting too attached to your gear.
I haven’t had breakfast yet, so tell me: What kind of bread did you use to attract the squirrel?
It was actually a French baguette. [Laughs]
I tried it with pita, but that crumbled. The hardness of the baguette allowed the squirrel to actually pick the camera up and do something with it. (See National Geographic’s squirrel pictures.)
How did you bait the camera?
[The baguette] was held down with a rolled-up piece of duct tape, but it wasn’t solidly attached. The squirrel was nibbling at the bread and then just picked up the whole camera to get farther away from me.
He had no interest in the GoPro when the bread was gone.
How many times did you attempt this?
On that day I did it three times. One time the squirrel dropped the camera on the ground. That was the one that got popular. Once the squirrel dropped it, and I caught it. The third time the squirrel left it on a branch relatively high up—high enough for breaking a leg but not too high to climb. I went up and got it and climbed back down, and then I figured I’d leave well enough alone.
So that was it?
I did it again the next week. I was worried the squirrel was eating the bread too quickly. I wanted to follow him a little longer and a little higher, so I wrapped the bread in duct tape. A squirrel took the camera 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters) up and left it wedged in the tree. (See “No Nuts, No Problem: Squirrels Harvest Maple Syrup.”)
I spent two or three hours throwing a soccer ball at the camera, and eventually a friend came with some professional climbing equipment. I was convinced the GoPro was gone and I’d pushed my luck one too many times, but we got it down.
Were you worried about losing your camera when shooting these videos?
That GoPro has had several lives. I lost it doing a race on an obstacle course, and somebody found it. The second time, I crashed my drone into a building. The GoPro fell from 30 feet (9 meters), smashed, and split open. So I figured, if it’s gonna go out, it can go out in style.
Have you been surprised by the public reaction to the video?
Unbelievable is not the right word. It’s interesting, actually. I put up a lot of videos on YouTube, some I consider to be more interesting or artsy, but there’s something about this that a lot of people love and relate to.
It’s an unrefined look at a squirrel: That’s what it looks like, sounds like, feels like to be up in a tree. (See National Geographic’s tips for photographing wildlife.)
Do you think the risk of having this creature run off with your camera had something to do with it being such a hit?
I think it’s the fact that the footage is authentic, and taking a bit of a risk. If it’s obvious that nothing could ever have gone wrong in a video, it may be great footage, but this adds a little element of, “You may be screwed now, human. I’ve got your GoPro.”
And it sort of looked like that’s what he was saying to me when he got up on the branch and was filming me.
At one point it also looked like he was filming himself. Do you think we’re anthropomorphizing the squirrel a bit, and that’s what people are responding to?
It’s funny when the squirrel turns the camera around, because it looks like he was trying to get a selfie but couldn’t manage to hold the thing properly. I think a lot of people are projecting human qualities onto that, which always makes things interesting. And I guess, to people who don’t live with squirrels hanging around, it’s as novel as kangaroos are to us, though they’re a nuisance to Australians.
Any future plans in the realm of squirrel videography?
I’m done with the squirrels for now. I’m trying to think of safe ways to get this kind of perspective from different animals that people generally think of as vermin.
Everyone’s seen the videos with the falcon, where they put the GoPro on the head. But there are a bunch of animals meandering around the city that you never really think about, and they’re just as interesting in a way. (Also see “The Science of Selfies: A Five-City Comparison.”)
I want to set up the videos so I don’t give away my GoPro and also I don’t put the animals at any risk.
A pigeon would be amazing, but I don’t think it would have the mass or the strength to carry a GoPro.
[Now], if I could get a beaver to take it…
This article was first published by National Geographic on 21 Nov 2014.