Monday, March 20, 2006

Georgia Squirrel Revival

It about figures that once I start theorizing about something publicly, something happens that forces me to revision. Yep-- it happened, and not a week after my last posting--squirrel's nest down. Second time in the seven years we've lived here, and the first time anything could be done about it.

Friday afternoon after my last posting we were finishing up Baby's schooling and getting ready for a Girl Scout meeting when our male dog, Buddy, appeared at the back door. We, suspecting nothing, let him in.

Bud is a big, friendly, dribbling mop of a retriever (golden, or possibly yellow lab) cross with hints of large terrier and maybe shar pei. My stepmother once aptly described him as "Benji on steroids." His personality runs heavily to the retriever, as does his obsession with carrying things. (He loves shoes.) His penchant for carrying things has, unfortunately, been fatal on occasion--we have found that grounded fledgling birds and the occasional conjunctivitis-blinded house finch do not stand up well to Buddy's handling. Aside from these infrequent instances, however, he never gets to do any REAL retrieving. Until...

The other dogs, of course, noticed first that Bud had something in his mouth. Anxious to keep his prize to himself, he loped across the living room and up the hall with his mouth shut and the girls at his heels. Baby realized what was up and got my attention: "He's got something--I think it's a mouse!" I nabbed him by the back door (oh, for some opposable thumbs! he was doubtless thinking) and grasped his collar, bracing myself. The girls gathered around.

Okay, say it's a mouse, I thought. What am I going to do when he lets it go? Well, figure that out later. Can't just stand here indefinitely. I took a deep breath.

"Leave it, Bud."
Slowly, he let a furry dark mass drop to the floor.
Baby tells me I let out a pretty good scream at that moment. I'll take her word for it though I don't recall. My thought process over the next several seconds (which I recall vividly for some reason) went thus:
1. My God, that's the biggest darn mouse I've ever seen!
2. No, stupid, that's not a mouse--it's a rat--no it's not. We don't have rats in the shed. Anyway, have you ever seen a rat that looked like that? Oh no, it's dead--look at it, curled up and with its eyes shut...
3. Oh. Wait a second. Curled up. Fetal position. Eyes shut. Wait. Rats don't have... furry tails.
4. It looks like a...squirrel. Baby squirrel. Duh.

The girls, thank goodness, must have been as nonplussed as I was; none of them moved while I was sorting all this out in my head. Junior, on the other hand, finding himself free and exposed to the glaring light of day and the air again (not to mention coated with slobber,) did. He let loose with a piercing, infantile scream.

This shook me back to action. Maternal instinct fighting its way through revulsion (parts of my brain had yet to let go of the notion that he was a dead rat,) I ordered the girls to stay. Surprisingly, they did. I grabbed a tissue from a nearby box and gingerly lifted him up. I hollered to Baby for some kitchen rags, which she brought. We wrapped him up. Probably exhausted from his effort, Junior did about what any infant does when it's been subjected to undue stress--he conked out.

I, meanwhile, was still in panic mode (a little James Joyce here:)
Baby squirrel oh my God it's going to die there's not a thing I can do it's too little I can't possibly raise it it's mother will never take it back now that it's been in a dog's mouth it can't last very long I can't let it suffer maybe I should euthanize it wait I don't even know how to do that properly except with ether and I don't keep that around the house I know--I'll call the vet.

Having got one of the vet's assistants on the phone, I stammered out the whole story.

"What should I do?" I asked. "It can't survive, can it?"

" Oh, yes it can," she replied with calm assurance. "Squirrels are fighters. I've raised a couple myself. I can take care of it if you want to bring it in."

Finally, a plan! This calmed me down enough that I found myself beginning to think straight--well, sort of. I decided to have a look around the backyard and see if I could determine Junior's tree of origin. Tucking him blankets and all into a plastic mixing bowl, I consigned him to Baby and slipped past the dogs through the back door. There might be more downed squirrels around, and I didn't want to give them access . In retrospect, I probably should have let Bud out with me, and followed him. He, after all, knew where Junior came from. He also had a far better nose than I do.

I looked around for several minutes with no result. A large nest in a nearby hickory appeared to have some material dislodged from it, and an adult squirrel sat on the branch beside it, seeming to look around. I approached, but saw and heard nothing. I went back inside.

We were heading out the door when D. arrived home, having taken a half day. He, poor soul, had figured on a quiet afternoon with his family. Instead, he got a pilgrimage to the vet with a soggy bedraggled critter that his city-boy instincts associated with a rat. Into the car we piled, Baby deftly balancing the makeshift squirrel cradle on her lap. Twenty minutes and one long detour to avoid an excruciatingly long freight train crossing later, we were turning into the vet's parking lot. Baby, over the previous several minutes, had been treating us to periodic bulletins from the back seat:

"He's breathing," (well, thank goodness for that.)

"He's starting to move; I think he's waking up,"

"He's moving his mouth,"

Darned if he wasn't, too. Back to the world of the living and ready to chow down. Junior squirmed around and rooted, making sucking motions with his mouth. We trooped into the office, where K., the assistant I had spoken to earlier, was waiting. We peeled back the rags.

Finally dry and with a good nap under his belt, Junior was looking pretty chipper. K. lifted him out of the bowl and competently draped him, belly-down, across the palm of her hand. Junior clung there with his front paws, still rooting. With his fur standing up, he no longer looked rat-like. He looked squirrel-like.

"Well," remarked K. "Better set up the incubator."

We got a Junior update a week later. K had passed him along to a friend who was taking care of him. That made me a little edgy, but I had to defer to her judgement in this matter. At any rate, he had made it that far, and would be released when he was old enough to survive on his own. That I could get behind. Squirrels, males especially, were not cut out to be house pets.

I got to rethink my previous examination of the yard when we got home. While I was distracted, the ever-determined Bud had persuaded somebody to let him back outside, and that somebody hadn't brought him back in. He was waiting for us at the back door in a characteristically retriever state of excitement. I opened the back door.

Bud had not been idle during our absence. There, on the threshold, unfortunately deceased but entirely undamaged, lay Junior's two siblings: one about the same size, the other noticeably smaller. I suspect exposure on the cold porch floor must have finished them off. Alas, if I had only made use of my squirrel retriever in time!

Postscript: After the fact, I did some online research to edify myself on better ways of handling downed baby squirrels. There are several helpful sites; all of them (in the strongest terms) advised contacting a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If one is not immediately available, hydration (using some form of electrolyte solution) was recommended over immediate feeding. Long-term care is a LOT of work, which is why a rehabber is advised. Baby squirrels cannot be raised on any old food or in any old way, and like most young mammals they need to be stimulated to relieve themselves. Don't try this at home, unless you don't mind spending several minutes a day swabbing a little squirrel bottom! These websites give information on basic care until you can get babies to a rehabber:

  • Squirrel Wildlife Rehabilitation
  • Baby Squirrel Care

    Mother squirrels often will attempt to rescue their babies if they can do so safely, and are not themselves injured. Human scent on the babies does not necessarily put them off. The following website includes an article with thorough details on attempting to return baby squirrels to their mommas:

  • How to care for baby squirrels

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