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Nature is the Great Teacher, the Great Leveller... the Big It. So it is always humbling to learn from Her.
My most recent encounter was in the world of that most humble of creatures, the squirrel. Tree rats, as some folks disparagingly call 'em around here.
Squirrels are generally perky little creatures, chattering with their tails wagging in warning to their kin about potential danger. They bury nuts, which grow into trees, if they aren't eaten beforehand. And the trees grow tall and strong, making great habitat for... squirrels. And so on.
Not that I'd thought about them much, until recently. It was the first day of Occupy Los Angeles. I was planning to, until this eensy tiny baby squirrel literally crawled up my leg in the front yard.
He was hiding in a hedge. One of the cats had bitten him, and one rear leg was paralyzed. What could I do, really. And so I stayed home and made a little nesting/recovery box for a baby squirrel.
I've rescued numerous small critters through the years. Most of them don't last long. My only real success was a crow, who rejoined his family after he had learned to fly and such.
Crows are over the top smart, btw. And squirrels, interestingly enough, ain't stupid.
I suppose the mama squirrel must have been eaten by a hawk. These three babies were at the base of a large ash tree in the front, and were gathering around the cat as though she might be their mother. They were in a group, foraging as best they could, but obviously way to little to be on their own..
Nevertheless, I decided to let the other two go back up the tree, after one took a chunk out of my finger when I tried to pick it up.
The one with the useless leg, who we named Gimpy, was glad to be saved, and cooperative as could be.
The third baby went back up the tree as well.
The next day I had Gimpy outside in the sun, and a big red tailed hawk swooped down and picked off one of the babies from the ash tree, carrying it screaming toward the nearby mountains. And so I caught the remaining sibling. But he only lasted a couple of days, dying of something or other. I think maybe terror. But they were cute while he lived, the two little brothers, snuggling together and fighting over food, just like brothers do.
The Gimpster was the picture of health. Other than his bad leg, of course. He mostly just slept all the time, when he wasn't eating. Curled up in a towel in the bottom of a plastic bin, on top of a heating pad. I'd take him out in the sunshine, and squeeze the gunk out of his wound, which on one side was a gaping hole near his left rear hip, matched by a slightly smaller bite on the inside of his left rear thigh. He'd been just about a mouthful for Raffi the cat, who didn't really mean anything by it. She just bit him out of curiosity and then let him go.
Eventually, Gimpy needed a bigger cage. So we built one using chicken wire over a metal shelf enclosure, and I put a big pine log in it for him to climb on. In the course of climbing up and down the log, one day his leg started working correctly. And then he could swing around the chicken wire and hang upside down, and play with little bells and ribbon and such.
Eventually we added two more levels, that he could climb up, and on, and through, etc. And he built a little resting spot out of rags and socks, and decorated it with nut shells and pieces of thread. The Gimpster was quite the artist. He would leap about, wrestling with a sock, throwing it around and attacking it in play. Sometimes he would literally jump for joy he was so happy to be alive.
There was much discussion in our family about whether or not we should let him go or keep him. The general conclusion was he had little in the way of survival skills for the outside world, and unless he began to act miserable in captivity, we'd keep him.
This went on for quite some time. He'd curl up and sleep at night, and I'd open the curtains for him in the morning, and he'd have breakfast and leap around and swing on the chicken wire and run up and down the stump and little logs and chew on sticks, etc.
Finally, we put a third level on top, with a little cardboard box with some rags in it for a nesting box. His cage now reached almost to the ceiling in my office. He seemed quite content, though sometimes I began to catch him looking longingly out the window.
One day I noticed him chewing on the chicken wire. Of course it wasn't long before I walked in to find him on the outside of the cage, looking quite excited and curious. I decided what the heck, he's gonna get out anyway. So I made the hole even bigger, and marked it with a rag which kind of hung out of it, so he could find it again.
Of course, it wasn't long before he was running all over the office, which is pretty messy even without the help of a resident squirrel. But mostly he'd just go to the windows, and scratch at them and try to get out.
So one day I opened the window just enough for him to get out. And he scurried down the wall, behind the trash cans which are right there. And I went outside to watch. He ran back in through the window, into the cage, and up into his little nest box. You could tell he was perplexed, and maybe a little overwhelmed. Dang. There's a world out there, he seemed to be thinking. I knew it!
So it became the norm for him to run in and out of the window. Then I was listening to something on the headphones, and he was out, and I figured I better go check him. He was nowhere to be found. But Raffi the cat was looking up an oak tree across the yard.
Sure enough, there was the Gimpster, hugging that tree like there was no tomorrow. Just like he'd hugged my leg.
I tried to get him down, but he climbed up higher, which is of course what squirrels instinctively do. And finally he got way up in the tree... and lay down and took a nap.
I kept an eye on him off and on for the rest of the day. He never came down. After he woke up, he climbed even higher.
I worried about him. Late that afternoon, just before sundown, he had managed to figure out how to walk on a power line and leap from limb to limb. He had begun to look so big in his cage. But he was still tiny out in the world.
High in a huge oak tree he discovered that there are other squirrels in the world. The Gimpster went running toward the other squirrel as it approached, and the other squirrel toward him. And then at the last moment, Gimpy leapt out of the way, off of the large limb they were both on and onto an impossibly tiny little sprig of a branch. It didn't hold. He dropped straight down thirty feet or so and did a belly flop on the sidewalk below. My son ran down the hill to see if he was okay, but before he could get there Gimpy dusted himself off and ran back up the tree.
As it got dark, I knew for certain the Gimpster was really on his own. I figured he'd just bed down somewhere there for the night and hopefully be okay. I left the window open a crack for him to get back in if he wanted to.
I put out some nuts and some water before I went in for the night. When I came out this morning, the same squirrel who had been on the big oak tree was eating one of the nuts. And there was no sign of Gimpy... till I looked up, and he was on one of the branches above. I realized by their calmness that they had become friends.
Strangers in the night, la la la la la.
Later in the day I noticed a commotion in the neighbor's yard, and there was a whole herd of squirrels. Or a flock. Or whatever you call it. You know, a truckload of squirrels. Okay, maybe 6 or 8. And there was Gimpy, just kinda moving along with them, foraging, climbing trees, waving his little tail and posing like squirrels do. Even scurrying across the neighbor's roof. I knew it was him, because he was smaller than the others, and wasn't afraid of me at all.
I was proud of him.
So tonight I'm not worried. Of course, he has to deal with all the trials, tribulations, dangers and rewards that Squirrel People deal with. But he's come full circle. Raffi the Cat brought him into our house, Raffi the Cat chased him back into the trees from whence he came.
And after all the years of futilely trying to rehabilitate little wild critters, most of whom were found by my kids... sparrows and mockingbirds and pigeons and even another squirrel from long ago who never quite made it... I finally had my second success, to go with the inimitable Jeb the Crow.
Gimpy the Squirrel, aka. Da Gimpster, has returned to the wilds of Altadena.
He's rejoined the ninety nine per cent, and is currently occupying a tree.