So we found squirrels, my husband and I. Two of them.
We were walking in the woods with our dog, Tess – as woodsy as any area can be in an urban town, set to the backdrop of a dwindling economy and wildly outdated mall whose stores have titles like “Poe’s Oriental Delights” and “We Buy Gold!”
And there they were. Just lying there.
Well, I should tell the story right if I’m going to tell it at all.
First we found one. Actually, we didn’t find it, Tess did. She hungrily sniffed at it and about .25 seconds before she loaded it up in her mouth and ran off with it to do god knows what we shouted, “Tess! No! Down!” and she backed off.
I’m going to be honest, I thought it was wild animal poop.
Tess has a bit of a fetish for exotic defecation and has been known to scoop it up and salivate all over it before committing to the act of swallowing. It’s disgusting, I know. But hey, she’s a dog.
One time we were in our backyard, which is a legitimate postage stamp of land, and she scooped up something mysterious from the grass. I thought maybe it was a rock or a twig or something, but couldn’t tell because her mouth was closed completely over it. I was a new dog owner at the time. I was worried. Kind of like a new mother whose baby has just snorted a pea up his nose. My panic set in and I knew I had to pry whatever the Christ was in her mouth out before something bad happened.
“Release!” I shouted.
She stared at me, totally understanding what I was asking and completely unobliged to respond with anything other than a face that said, “Huh? What? Who? Me?”
“Release!” I commanded again, trying to muster the best Cesar Milan impression I could possible fake.
Which was a pathetic impression indeed. Because despite my attempts to feign alpha dominance, I’m the kind of person who cuddles in bed with their dog and shares couch space. I hug her and cry on her fur when I need to, which isn’t often but does happen.
I am not an alpha dog. Who was I kidding?
So Tess had this thing in her mouth and I knew, I just knew, that it was something treacherous. What could it be? It didn’t matter – I was going to remove it.
I grabbed her muzzle and pried open her jaw with as little aggression as I possibly could. She shifted and wiggled out of my grasp but I held tight.
“Spit it! Spit it!” I shouted, once again assuming she knew exactly what I was talking about but realizing as I write this now, in clear hindsight, that this must have been a terrifying experience for her, me prying open her jaw and all.
(Cut to Louis C.K.’s description of saving his dog from death-by-chocolate. If you haven’t seen it, you really must: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMeXGE_a8Gg)
She wouldn’t spit it. And kept writhing. So I did what any responsible dog owner would do. I reached my hand in there and grabbed it.
Only it wasn’t the “it” I thought it would be. It wasn’t a rock. It wasn’t a branch. It wasn’t anything but a sloppy, warm pile of mush that I immediately recognized as the living arch nemesis of all curious dog owners: cat shit.
That’s right. Cat shit.
In my hand.
All wet and shit smelling and gross.
It was an experience I will never forget and one which reams through my mind instantly whenever I attempt to grab something out of Tess’ mouth again. Now I’m prepared for the risk I’m taking in doing such; but that day, I had no idea. I was totally uninformed of the canine propensity for fecal consumption.
Well, live and learn.
Anyway, so while we’re walking in the woods, Tess stoops to pick up this “thing” which I immediately assume is her beloved object of affection and desire, other-animal-shit.
That’s when the, “No! Drop it!” flew from my mouth. This time she listened. She’s gotten better at listening (despite the bed and couch sharing and all).
My husband and I moved to see what it was she almost ate and were shocked to find a tiny little rodent, feeble and dead-looking.
“Oh no! What is it?”
“I think it’s a squirrel,” observed my astute, nature-loving husband.
He grew up on a “farm” of sorts – not a real farm, but the classic woodsy New England redneck kind, where chickens and goats and pigs roamed around the back yard and vegetables were harvested for dinner. I always defer to his expertise in all things wildlife.
“You can tell by the tail,” he said, pointing to the scraggly haired tail of this little guy.
“Is it alive, you think?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, and leaned over to gently touch it with his finger.
Which is when, immediately, the little fella rolled over on his back and flailing and prostrate yelped out a noise which I can only describe as, “Mrawh, mrawh!”
It was calling its mother. Almost literally speaking the word, “Mom, mom.”
But she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere in sight. And neither was the nest.
It was easy to identify with the kind of cosmic abandonment this little guy felt. Just like us in our twenty-something state of mind, he too was alone, motherless and left to survive this crazy world on his own.
Obviously, though, we were much more prepared for the task than he.
“What should we do?” I asked.
My husband always knows what to do. Always.
“Well, we’ve got to take him home. It’s getting cold and dark and I doubt his mom will come back for him. If we leave him here, he’ll likely die overnight. Probably get eaten by something or else freeze to death. He looks really dehydrated, anyway. We should take him home and see what we can do.”
And that was it.
We were now squirrel owners.
My husband picked up the little guy and placed him in the palm of his hand. He was so small, the length of two quarters, tops, his shriveled little body breathing quick and keeping still, very still, obviously out of terror and/or the incredible physical weakness which accompanies malnourishment.
And we were off.
Until we saw another, no more than two yards from the first little guy.
We were certain this one was dead – she was splayed out in the middle of the foot path, just as scrawny as the first but out in plain sight. My husband didn’t even reach down to touch this one with his finger he was so convinced she was dead. Instead, he oh so gently tipped the toe of his boot on her side – a quick dead check.
And immediately, she rolled over on her back just like her brother and screamed with the same howling baby cry of, “Mrawh! Mrawh!”
Holy shit – here was another one, another little tiny nearly lifeless being that so desperately needed warmth and love and fluids. And there was no one, not a living mama in sight to help her. I began to question the divinity of the universe at this point. It seemed cruel and harsh to think of little babies dying alone of malnutrition. It’s funny how easy it is to pretend realities like that don’t exist until you see them. There’s something natural in that, I think: almost like, if we were to be conscious of all the horrors that pertain to existence, we’d be too numbed and paralyzed to do anything worthwhile.
But here were these little babies, crying for help, and here was our dog, trying to eat them, and here we were, passive observers of nature and its hard line truths. So we did the only thing we could possibly do: we took them both home. I carried the little gal, my husband the tyke. And off we went.
(Little scrawny guys.)
We kept them in a small terrarium that had recently suffered the death of several succulents.
I really want to be a gardener and to imagine myself as one of those women who squats down well into her fifties and pulls weeds with a brimmed hat and polka dotted gloves. But for now, at least, confined to our little apartment, I’m relegated to houseplants. Which I kill. In copious amounts.
Luckily, it was empty. I put down a few layers of facecloths and covered those with paper towels. We took our desk lamp from another room and shined it hot and bright on the glass case, and in they went.
We immediately consulted Google for the proper feeding and keeping of baby squirrels. Every link we checked said the same thing, like an ominous bell tolling: DO NOT CARE FOR WILDLIFE YOURSELF! BRING ANY FOUND AND INJURED WILDLIFE TO THE NEAREST WILDLIFE RESCUER. CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF NAMES NEAR YOU.
But that was always followed more optimistically by, “But if you can’t find someone, here’s what you do!”
Pedialyte was first – they needed to be hydrated. And warmth. Lots of warmth. Babies need to stay in 95 degree temps in order to prosper, so keep those little suckers warm! And then formula. Puppy formula would do the trick. But you have to feed them by a syringe. And you have to be very careful because if you feed them too quickly you’ll flood their lungs and they’ll die. Also, if you feed them too little, they’ll suffer seizures and calcium deficiencies and they’ll die. And if you feed them too much they’ll develop diarrhea/vomiting and they’ll die. They may also develop pneumonia, low-blood sugar and/or flesh eating locusts, all of which would likewise result in the same conclusion that it seemed everything resulted in when humans try to raise baby squirrels from scratch: they’ll die.
The truth was clear. Despite our most valiant attempts, we were going to kill these baby squirrels. For no reason other than that this was the simple truth of life. Nature is a hardened bitch. And life is so, so fragile.
It is what it is.
All of us, every single creature on earth, need what we need and if we don’t get those needs met, shit happens. Death happens. We die and it’s over. Plain and simple.
For some reason, I felt more infuriated than despondent after reading the articles. It was like something in me kicked up and said, “Oh yeah? They’re gonna die, huh? Yeah? Well fuck you, nature!”
The instinct to somehow thwart death rose up in me like some kind of spiritual acid reflux and I could do nothing but choke it back down. I drove to CVS that night to buy Pedialyte and PetSmart to buy puppy formula.
(Tess is not so sure about the squirrels coming home with us.)
It took a while to get the hand of feeding them. The first six times at least I’d be gently squeezing little drops into their tiny toothed mouths and would slip or move or something and a rush of liquid would splash all over their little faces and they’d sneeze and cough and I’d feel my entire heart break in this feeling of OHMYGODIJUSTKILLEDTHEM!
But I didn’t. They were fine.
And they kept being fine.
After four days, in fact, they’d gained weight, become more energetic and stopped doing this awful twitching thing that they were doing the second and third day we had them.
And then it happened.
No, not that – I know what you’re thinking, but not that. Not yet, anyway.
They opened their eyes.
Their little tiny heads with their big black squirrel eyes flash open in tiny slits.
It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Here we were, feeding these scrawny little momma-less rodents out of a plastic syringe every third hour, on the hour – yes, even during the middle of the night. I’d set my alarm to make sure – and it was working. It was actually working. They were living, they were growing, they were meeting developmental stages. We were saving them!
(Let there be vision!)
It was one of the most quietly exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had. I soaked it up with bread and enjoyed every bite of it. The thought that my husband and I could care for feeble, sick creatures and nurse then back to health warmed my soul in a way few things ever have.
It made me realize that we can do this, really.
We can be parents.
And I got a little bit of a fast forward glimpse of how very much we’d love the task.
After four days, though, things took a turn. And on the fifth day, they passed, one after the other, within twelve hours. That was it.
It crushed me to see them in their death throes, twitching and convulsing and trying so desperately to just sleep.
I’m sure they thought it was sleep, what they were craving.
We buried them in the back yard in two little deep, narrow holes near the shed.
And that was the end of our days raising squirrels.
I ran through my head all of the things we could’ve done to save them. I had tried contacting several wildlife rescuers in our five day span with these little ones, but either didn’t get returned phone calls or was thwarted by the required “donation” fee of $60 per animal charged for their care.
We don’t have $120 to spend on abandoned baby squirrels.
We don’t even have $120 to spend on groceries this week.
Where did we go wrong? Did we feed them too much? Or not enough? Did they have pneumonia? Or calcium deficiencies? Or diabetes? Or hypothermia?
I really don’t know the answer to that question, but the more I run through in my mind the play by play of how we raised these little guys for five days, the more I come to a singular conclusion: they were sick. They may have been sick before we even found them. That may have been why they were abandoned in the first place.
But all of this is only conjecture. The resounding truth pounded softly in my mind: they’re dead.
We did the best we could. We really did. And we loved them with a love so pure and parental that it kind of creeped everyone out. It must have been strange to see the cockle-warmed glint in our eyes when we talked about our little rescued baby squirrels.
I know our parents were kind of bothered by it.
“Really? Why don’t you two just have babies already? Jeez.”
But all in all, the experience taught me a few things. Here they are:
(1) I cannot wait to be a mother. Like, really, seriously, completely, cannot wait. It’s a role I’m born to play, I know it. If I can muster that much care for a diseased fetal rodent, I can’t even fathom what it will be like to tickle the little toes of a human foot, or poke the tiny nose of a giggling baby.
(2) Death is not a monster. It is, in fact, a gentle keeper.
The babies were not scared when they died. They weren’t suffering an existential crises or metaphysical anguish. They were calm and ready to rest. Life was a fight for them and it was time for check out. Death was their hospitable host, ushering them to comfort.
(3) I missed my calling to be a veterinarian, but at the very least I know I want to rescue animals again. I now intend to become a wildlife rehabber or a foster parent or something that puts me in the front line of handling helpless animals and getting them back on their feet. My psychic friend told me so much was true about a year ago and it didn’t mean anything to me. It does now. I love animals, I’ve always known, from the time I was a little kid and covered my bed every night with an allotment of nearly thirty six stuffed animals, none of whom were allowed to fall off of the bed without my deepest remorse in the morning. So yeah, I get it, I love animals: but I love a lot of other things, too. It wasn’t until this experience that I realize the extent of my love, and how necessary it is for me to be doing something with that love.
All in all, it was a beautiful week. Life has a way of consistently surprising me.
Rest well, little buddies. It was a miracle to know you.
P.S.: We did name them. Rad and Tad.