Hunting gray squirrels like this one is a challenging sport and a great chance to be outdoors, but avoid consuming the squirrel’s brains. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

Hunting gray squirrels like this one is a challenging sport and a great chance to be outdoors, but avoid consuming the squirrel’s brains. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

Each year many Monroe Countians are among the thousands of Georgians that take to the wood in hopes of bagging a few squirrels.  Some of the reasons why squirrel hunting is so popular include: It is a sport that can be enjoyed hunters of all ages; squirrels offer a real challenge; and bushytails make a tasty meal. 

However there is a problem with the third reason; eating squirrel brains can prove to be fatal.

For as long as humans have inhabited North America, squirrels have been hunted and eaten. The archaeological record indicates that although squirrels were hunted and eaten by Native Americans, they were not a food staple. In fact, squirrels were often considered as food fed only to children.

It appears that squirrels were more often eaten by European colonists. One way in which they prepared squirrels was to skin and remove their entrails, feet, and heads. The carcasses were boiled and then fried in lard.

Nowadays, squirrel meat is used to create a number of dishes including Brunswick and burgoo stew, casseroles, fried and served with gravy, barbecued, as well as squirrel and dumplings. In addition, a small cadre of hunters also dine on squirrel brains. Perhaps the favorite way in which squirrel brains are prepared is to serve them with scrambled eggs.

Often, this practice is steeped in tradition. A close friend that grew up in Northern Virginia told me that squirrel brains were reserved for the elder members of the family. 

In rural Kentucky, when a friend or relative brings a squirrel head to the home of a neighbor, it is presented to the woman of the house.  It is her responsibility to remove the hair from the top of the squirrel’s skull. She then fries the head. Once the delicacy reaches the dinner table the skull is cracked open and the brains sucked out.

At times the skull is cracked and the brains are extracted before they are scrambled and served in white gravy or eggs.

Although Americans have been eating squirrel brains for generations, the danger of dining on this bizarre food did not surface until the mid 1990’s when two Kentucky doctors sounded the alarm. They warned the public to refrain from eating squirrel brains. This dire warning was prompted by 11 patients being diagnosed as being infected with a variation of mad cow disease named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) during a four-year period. All of these individuals had eaten squirrel brains.

This extremely rare neurological malady has since shown up in a number of other states, such as New York, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and elsewhere.

It is estimated that normally only one case of CJD is reported in Kentucky every 10 years. Having 11 cases pop up in a relatively small area in western Kentucky within only four years left physicians wondering how this was possible.

It is estimated that roughly 350 cases of CJD appear in the United States annually.  In comparison, some 1 million humans contract the disease each year throughout the world.

Little is currently known about the squirrel-borne CJD. What we do know is those contracting the disease die within a year. The symptoms include loss of memory, coordination and vision; impaired mobility and dementia. 

Those that become infected with the disease literally develop small holes in their brains. As the disease progresses the infected tissue is described as looking much like a sponge.

It should be noted that all of the individuals that were initially diagnosed with the disease in Kentucky were 56 to 78 years old.

In spite of the fact that your chances of contracting CJD are extremely slim and squirrel meat is so delicious, why even consider dining on squirrel brains?

 

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.