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Tiny Southern Illinois Town Capital Of Wild Albino Squirrels

June 5, 1988

OLNEY, Ill. (AP) _ Their likeness is everywhere: on the city flag and the sides of city vehicles, on the uniforms of police officers, firefighters and city workers. By law they have the right-of-way on any street.

Welcome to Olney, ″Home of the White Squirrels,″ the only town in the United States to boast a large colony of wild albino squirrels.

″It’s our mark of distinction, to put it bluntly,″ said Mayor Gail Lathrop. ″They’re so darn cute.″

″A lot of tourists - ’course we don’t get a lot, being in the middle of nowhere - stop by the park to see the squirrels,″ said Mike Belcher, supervisor of public works in the town of 9,000 in southeastern Illinois.

″This is Olney’s only chance for their claim to fame,″ said Belcher, whose uniform also sports a white-squirrel emblem on the sleeve.

The squirrel also appears on the key to the city and on a Rotary Club sign in the mayor’s office. There’s a stuffed white squirrel on the wall of the City Council chamber.

To protect the city’s 150 squirrels, Olney enacted an ordinance in 1925 that gave the animals with white fur, white skin and pink eyes - mutations from gray squirrels - the right-of-way on any street.

Should a motorist break the law and kill one, he faces a $25 fine. Ditto for taking one out of town.

″The city goes crazy over them,″ Belcher said.

John Stencel, a local zoologist, said the white squirrels have inhabited Olney since the early 1900s.

He said colonies of albino squirrels, which he described as groups of about 25, are rare. Other states, including Minnesota and Tennessee, do have them, he said, but none are the size of Olney’s.

″It’s one of those things that you claim it, and let somebody else prove us wrong,″ Stencel said.

The squirrels thrive because, in addition to being protected by law, people feed them.

On a recent day, a handful of townspeople sat around the city park, waiting to give them a meal.

Only three appeared. Belcher explained that during the summer when the temperature is high and people splatter about the nearby city pool, the squirrels stay in their hollow trees.

″I think they’re wonderful,″ said Jo Ann Wiggins, who had packed apples for the squirrels. ″They’re our pride.″

Marcia Hoagland brought her 2-year-old nephew, Robbie Wallace, to see the white squirrels, though she forgot a bag of peanuts at home.

Said the mayor: ″You really can’t appreciate these little animals until you see them.″

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