TAMPA — To a passer-by, Anderson Park, with its green grass and canopy of oaks, looks like a slice of Americana, a scene reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
To those who frequent this green space in the Hyde Park area, though, it can more closely resemble an Alfred Hitchcock thriller — with squirrels instead of birds.
Some parkgoers, it seems, have ignored the city sign asking them not to feed the squirrels.
The result: The furry tree rodents are jumping at children who carry food, invading strollers and diaper bags, and generally annoying the many families who come here for the fountain, playground and basketball courts.
Peter Mundorff, a parent and park regular, said he has even seen squirrels attack and scratch adults, including a man who was unloading speaker equipment from his car and a teacher in the preschool program at the park's Kate Jackson Community Center.
School officials said they could not comment.
Mundorff is accustomed to the small rodents' aggressive behavior and just kicks sand at them when they come close to his children.
“I'm not afraid of the squirrels, but I am apprehensive,” he said.
On a visit to the park this week, adults and children were seen tossing popcorn, peanuts and even whole sandwiches to the squirrels, laughing at the rodents' antics.
People who work with animals say when people feed squirrels regularly, they lose their fear and come to believe all food is theirs.
“There is a reason you see signs up that say don't feed the alligators,” said David Nelson of Nelson's Pest Control in Port Richey. “If too many people feed them, they lose their fear of people and start to think they have a right to the food.”
The same goes for squirrels, he said — even when the people at hand don't have food to offer.
Notified of the problem at Anderson Park, city workers are seeking a solution. But this is a new one on them so they're still looking into alternatives.
One sign there warns against feeding the squirrels. More signs are coming and they'll be placed more prominently, said Greg Bayor, director of Tampa Parks and Recreation.
If that doesn't remedy the situation, Bayor said, the city will look into other options. He wouldn't elaborate.
“I've dealt with birds before, but never squirrels,” Bayor said.
Squirrels' natural instinct is to forage for winter now, adding to their aggressiveness, he said.
Nelson the pest control man isn't so sure of that.
“If we were up north, maybe,” he said. “But in Florida, the squirrels store food all day long, all month long, month after month out of habit. It is yearlong. For the squirrels, getting the food is a game.”
Nelson said it may be too late for “Do Not Feed the Squirrels” signs to make a difference.
“They already have a comfort level in the park,” he said.
He suggested the city consider trapping and removing the squirrels then encouraging parkgoers to heed the new signs once a new population establishes itself there.
Another option, said squirrel rescuer Karen Clark, is to leave them in place but fight back.
“If one approaches you while you eat, scare it off with a squirt bottle or by making a loud noise,” said Clark, with Lovely Lita's Sheltering Tree Foundation, a Tampa rescue and rehabilitation operation with 1,700 likes on Facebook.
“It's sad,” Clark said. “The squirrels are paying the price for the stupidity of people.”
Whatever it is, some of those who frequent Anderson Park insist something needs to be done.
Parent Amber Skelton said the creatures, showing no fear, steal food from picnic tables where families are seated.
Skelton said she only carries food there in hard plastic or tin lunchboxes because the squirrels gnaw through bags.
Parent Eric Rockey only started visiting the park recently and said his wife was shocked to find a squirrel inside the diaper bag.
Said Rockey, “I think it's only a matter of time before a kid gets seriously hurt.”