The Squirrel that Got Away
The Squirrel that Got Away:
The Time I Raised a Squirrel
by H. Bradford
This is going to be one of those…”the time I…” stories. Perhaps I should do a series of “The time I…” stories. This is about the time I raised a squirrel. After all, January 21st is Squirrel Appreciation Day. How better to celebrate the holiday than with a story about a beloved squirrel? This is the story of Flappy, the squirrel that I loved and the squirrel that got away…
Flappy was discovered on a cool spring stroll through Pine Valley Park in Cloquet. I was out for a walk with Dan, enjoying one of my favorite trails, when I came upon a small, flattened baby squirrel with an injured tail. The squirrel was naked, blind, and making an ungodly shriek. We walked past it, but I could hear it behind me as we continued on. I turned around to revisit the helpless squirrel. Some crows were menacingly gathered above us. I didn’t see any sign of a nest or a mother. So, I took the squirrel. I knew this was the wrong idea and it would probably die, but I wanted to save it.
When I returned home, I researched how to care for a squirrel. Of course, every website said that it was better to leave it in nature, even if it perished. The websites warned that baby squirrels were hard to care for and some warned that wildlife rehabilitators might not bother with squirrels because they are so plentiful. The life of a squirrel is cheap. Against all of this advice, I decided to care for the squirrel anyway. This began with devising some kind of diet and environment for it. There was some trial and error, but somehow the squirrel survived the first few days of its life with me. I named the squirrel Flappy, which is short for Flapjack.
Squirrel care was somewhat involved. At first, I fed the squirrel puppy formula, but I had a hard time finding a syringe that was small enough for a baby squirrel. Pet syringes were sized for puppies and kittens. This problem was solved by an awkward middle of the night visit to the Walgreens Pharmacy in search for a single, diabetic time syringe without the needle. Still, even with the small syringe, Flappy always seemed to inhale his milk. I worried that the squirrel would get pneumonia. Eventually, I switched from puppy formula to a concoction of cow milk, yogurt, vitamin e, and sunflower oil. The solution was thinner and seemed to agree with Flappy’s digestive system much better than the puppy formula. I had to feed Flappy every few hours, which meant I took the squirrel to work with me. Every few hours I would wake from my sleep or stop my work to warm up some milk solution for the squirrel, then dutifully feed it. If I failed to do this, my life was interrupted with a terrible shriek. In caring for the young squirrel, I also learned that baby squirrels can’t defecate on their own. Apparently the mother squirrel licks their genitals to stimulate urination and defecation. Yep, so I had to use a q-tip and warm water to massage the squirrel into peeing and pooping. This was quite worrisome as Flappy did not “go” during his first few days with me. I thought it was bound up and would die. So, I was pretty pleased when he finally let loose a black rice sized turd. Lovely stories, right? I also made sure that Flappy was warm by putting a heating pad under his cage. Finally, I made sure that he didn’t feel lonely by setting a stuffed animal in his cage, along with a watch. The ticking of the watch was to fool him into thinking that the stuffed animal had a heart beat. I don’t know if this worked, but he did curl up by the stuffed animal.
The first few weeks of Flappy’s life were pretty intense. He was a needy little squirrel. He was blind, naked, and hungry. But, he slowly changed. His eyes opened. He started to grow gray fur. Each day he looked a little less like Golum from the Hobbit. Flappy became more active and squirrel like. In his toddler years, he started to very carefully claw his way up things. I also felt more confident that he would survive, as he was more robust. However, I did make the mistake of removing the heating pad to early. I found him weak and unresponsive in his cage. I thought for sure he would die, but he survived the night by sleeping on my chest. A few months into his life, he began eating solid foods. This was pretty exciting, since it meant less work for me. I even made him some homemade squirrel food from a recipe found on a rehabilitator website. He hated it. But, he loved hazelnuts- one of the more expensive nuts in the store.
Towards the middle of the summer, Flappy was large enough that he had outgrown his cage and really, was pretty squirrely in his confinement. He would climb the walls of his small prison, making me feel pretty bad for containing him. As such, I decided to introduce him to the outdoors. Our first adventures outside were interesting. Having never seen a bird, Flappy freaked out when he saw a seagull. He clawed up my naked arms and hid behind my head. Of course, with more experience outside, Flappy learned not to fear every bird. At the same time, Flappy showed complete indifference to other squirrels. He quickly learned that other squirrels can be quite aggressive, so his apathy was shattered by chattering teeth and waving tails. Thus, being raised by a human meant that he wasn’t perfectly socialized as a squirrel. Nevertheless, there were plenty of things that were inborn. For instance, he naturally hid nuts and naturally took to climbing tall objects. After a few adventures outside, I took Flappy out again. This time, he bounded down the sidewalk, unafraid of other squirrels or birds. He kept going until climbing an electric pole to the top. He stayed there for several hours. I figured that perhaps it was time for him to go off on his own and that this was the end of our time together. When I checked on him later, he was gone.
I didn’t hear from Flappy for a few days. But, days later, the squirrel returned. It was raining. The drenched squirrel was on the front steps. He had lost weight and looked pathetic. All of this is a very dramatic story. A story of a lost loved one who returns in the pouring rain. I was surprised that he found his home or that he knew to wait on the steps. In any event, I took him back inside. This meant a return to his prison, but it gave him a few days to fatten up and dry out. But, once again, his pathetic running up and down his cage prompted me to let him loose again. However, this time, things went better. This time, he went outside, but somehow learned how to return to the house through the mail slot. Thus, he spent his days outside, then snaked through the mail slot to sleep in our porch at night. This was a great arrangement since he had the benefit of both freedom and security. Flappy made a squirrel’s nest out of the stuffing of a Ragedy Ann doll in the porch. This marked the beginning of his adult life in his awesome bachelor pad. He was still my little squirrel though. Each morning, after working the night shift, I would wake up him by clicking. Then, I would feed him some hazelnuts. He would sit on my shoulder and climb up my leg. This made for a pretty cool pet. Even when I was outside, he would run up to me to climb on me. All the while, he grew fat on all the treats and his life of comfort. This made him the dominant squirrel of the neighborhood. He went from the bullied baby squirrel to a tyrannical boss.
Now, I remember Flappy fondly, but it is important to note that while he ate the nuts that I gave him and freely climbed on me, he was not so nice to my housemates. They remember Flappy as a terror who would bite and scratch them. This is where the story of Flappy becomes less heart warming. You see, in February 2010, I went to study abroad in South Korea. I planned on being in Asia for six months. This meant that I had to leave Flappy in the care of my housemates. It also meant I had to leave my beloved pet. While I was away, he grew increasingly aggressive and wild. This tends to be the case with wild animals and why people are warned not to take them in. It got to the point where my roommates feared for their safety, since Flappy believed that the porch was his territory. He attacked anyone who entered the porch. A downside of raising a squirrel is that they have less fear of humans. So, while I pined for my squirrel from the other side of the world, my housemates lived in terror. They continued this life for a while. But, by the summer they decided to evict Flappy from his home on the porch. They did this by blocking the mail slot by a giant bag of charcoal. This did not deter Flappy. Having grown into a thoroughly demonic squirrel in my absence, he actually ate through an entire bag of coal to each his sweet suite on the porch. Eating all that charcoal seemed to make him even darker and meaner. I must admit that I am a little proud of Flappy for his tenacity. In any event, about a month from my return, my roommates decided to capture the squirrel in a cage and release him somewhere far away. It was suggested by one of them that they should just kill the squirrel, but I am glad that they did not. They captured the squirrel, released it miles away, and that was the last anyone heard of Flappy. Interestingly, the next day, the porch had another squirrel on it, but it was a wild squirrel who had entered Flappy’s lair in search of his stash of hazelnuts. I returned from Asia and felt pretty upset about the whole thing, especially since they did not consult me. I felt that they insulted me by going behind my back and keeping it a secret until my return. It was as if they didn’t trust me with the truth or to make a logical choice. This was a betrayal more than the release of the squirrel.
All of this transpired about seven years ago. I assume that Flappy is gone to the world, as the life span of a squirrel is about six years. In captivity, a gray squirrel can reportedly live up to 20 years, but I think that the challenges of his new environment and his maladjusted nature might have shortened his lifespan. Although it was a long time ago now, I still have a fondness for squirrels. It was more pronounced years ago, where every squirrel I saw evoked feelings of joy. As time as gone on, I am more desensitized to this joy, but I still enjoy them. This extends to all rodents, more or less. So, Flappy taught me to take joy in squirrels and to love rodents. Squirrels will always have a special place in my heart. Flappy was also special because I am not a caregiver. I don’t want children. I don’t find a lot of joy in carework. Although I like cats, I don’t have any pets because animal care takes too much time and investment. Flappy might be special because he is the only thing that I really took care of and took care in taking care of. My friends teased me that I was a squirrel mother. This annoyed me tremendously because I don’t want to be a mother to anything or anyone. But, I was a “squirrel sitter.” Flappy was never really meant to be my squirrel, but I cared for him for a time.
In addition to the experience of caring for something, I think it attests to something strange about humans. We have the capacity of love very different species. What evolutionary purpose would our fondness for animals serve? Is it a badly wired brain that cares for anything cute? From an anthropological perspective, not all societies have the concept of pets! Or, there are cultures that keep pets but don’t treat them especially lovingly. The concept of animal cruelty is fairly modern. Animal rights activists are dismissed for being too emotional. They don’t accept the cold, mechanical reality of industrial agriculture. They don’t just submit to the horrors inflicted upon animal kind like every other hotdog and hamburger loving American. We can love individual animals. We can love groups of animals (horses, cats, dogs). The love of AN animal seems contradictory when paired with indifference to all other animals. Shrug. Another lesson from Flappy is seeing myself in the squirrel. I mean this in the evolutionary sense. Flappy was a curious, bushy tailed, nut gnawing creature of the treetops. In a way, he reminded me of a little primate, like a lemur, bushbaby, lori, or tasier. This similarity is even more pronounced in flying squirrels, which are nocturnal and have large, dark eyes, not unlike a bushbaby. I imagined that our most ancient human ancestors, or the proto-primate ancestors of primates, were very squirrel like. Evolutionarily speaking, rodents are more closely related to humans than humans are to dogs and cats. Primates and glires (rabbits, rodents) are both part of the same clade “Euarchontoglires.” If you move backwards in history, humans, tree shrews, rabbits, rats, squirrels, beavers, etc. all had a common ancestor. We are on the same branch of a tree. Now, closely is pretty relative, and if you go back far enough, everything is related. But, there is a cosmetic similarity between squirrels and some primates as well as a deep evolutionary connection. Anyway, we like to think of ourselves as fierce and independent like cats or loyal and fun-loving like dogs, but we are more like those smaller animals in the treetops or those that scurry in the bushes and sewers. We are more rat than cat. Or at least we are 80 million years apart. I am fascinated by our evolutionary connection to the life around us.
Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I saw another baby squirrel. I think, knowing what I now know, I would pass it by. It was a lot of work and emotional investment. I am sure I would be tempted to care for it and might regret if I did not, but maybe some things are better left to nature. For now, I can find contentment in feeding the squirrels from time to time and appreciating them from afar.