anna gibbs squirrel

Part 1: Life lessons from raising an orphaned squirrel

By Anna Gibbs

On the first day of September, when everyone else in the world was heading back to college (or law school, or high school, or their first post-grad job), I was on my bed scrolling through Instagram.

My life commitments weren’t yet in the form of a 9 to 5, and I had returned home after graduating from college this past spring. I wanted some time to try new things, spend time with my family, reflect on my life, and weigh out next steps.

I knew in my heart this was the right decision for me. Still, it’s been tough responding to the constant question of “What are you doing now?” when I felt insecure about the answer.

As I scrolled through my social media feed that Sunday, I felt a pang of anxiety as I read about my friends’ latest life pursuits.

Little did I know I was about to make an endeavor of my own, though not one I would have ever expected.

Before the day was over, I was to be the caregiver to an orphaned, three-week-old red squirrel.

I had happened upon the Instagram story of a high school friend. The post read: “My idiot cat brought in a baby squirrel.”

And then: “I go to college tomorrow and the mother squirrel hasn’t come back for the baby. Can anyone take it?”

I was having trouble taking care of myself, let alone an abandoned infant rodent. But I had the time. How could I not offer to take it under my wing? 

My friend dropped off the squirrel a few hours later. He was fast asleep in a small plastic aquarium, with a sock-covered hot water bottle for warmth. We named him Hazelnut.

The first time feeding Hazelnut. We eventually transitioned to a smaller syringe size so he wouldn’t aspirate and choke while drinking – a common baby squirrel challenge (Anna Gibbs photo)

Rusty red, with not much fur on his belly and a skinny tail the size of a pencil, he fit easily in the palm of my hand.

His eyes were still shut; they wouldn’t open until he was four weeks old. He had to be fed every three to four hours, which meant waking up twice in the middle of the night.

The first night, I woke up an hour before my alarm, anxious I would miss it and he would die. But after a week, the 3 a.m. feedings became like regular hazy dreams.

All babies are fragile, and squirrel infants are no exception, as I was informed by the internet’s countless opinions on squirrel rehabbing.

Luckily I have a friend who has rehabbed dozens of squirrels. Vicki provided me with equipment and information I never thought I’d need to know.

One fun fact I have learned: baby squirrels need to be fed a specific brand of puppy formula, as cow’s milk will kill them.

Another fun fact: you have to rehydrate a rescued baby squirrel before you can feed it formula, or it can die. (A Family Dollar employee informed me of this fact rather abrasively. “Did you feed it!?” she exclaimed when I mentioned I was caring for a baby squirrel. I nodded, and she hollered, “Then you killed it!”)

It’s important for baby squirrels to stay warm. Hazelnut liked cuddling with a water bottle full of hot water and covered by a sock. For such a small critter, he has big feet! (Anna Gibbs photo)

Baby squirrels also need to have their genitals stimulated in order to urinate – or else their bladders can burst.

His little bladder was like a ticking time bomb in his belly that I needed to reset every three hours with a wet Q-tip. The prospect of failing to do so was frightening.

Hazelnut’s eyes remained closed until the following Friday night, when I picked him up for his feeding and he blinked.

I surprised myself by almost crying. There’s something so intimate about caring for someone or something, even when it’s tough. Perhaps especially when it’s tough.

Hazelnut became my new go-to life update. “So you’ve graduated – what are you up to?” When I mentioned the baby squirrel, people’s faces lit up.

Sharing new factoids about squirrels felt like skipping the small talk about the weather and the job and the family, and jumping right into how I was feeling.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all shared the random wonder-inducing things that happen in our lives?

At three weeks, his ears were pressed fully against his head. Now, they are starting to poke out (Anna Gibbs photo)

The things that we’ve been learning and the things that have been bringing us joy, rather than what we think others want to hear?

A week after I got Hazelnut, I drove to western Mass. to visit my boyfriend Esteban.

I packed up Hazelnut’s things – syringes, formula, towels – and buckled the seatbelt around his tank.

I arrived close to midnight at Esteban’s new house, with a housewarming party in full swing.

When I left the party to feed Hazelnut, Esteban led a crowd of 20 tipsy college students up the narrow stairs to his room.

It was like a small marching band, with Esteban at the baton. I shooed them away, but a few slipped in and watched quietly while I fed the squirrel. Hazelnut’s first college party.

This picture was taken one day after opening his eyes for the first time. Though his eyes look mostly black, they actually have a rim of blue around the pupil (Anna Gibbs photo)

On the drive home, I passed three dead squirrels on the road. Their tire-tracked bodies are so common that most people don’t look twice.

When I was a young girl, I was sure that one of the world’s most pressing issues was roadkill.

It blew my mind that we hadn’t invented a solution, like, say, levitating cars.

But now at 22, I’ve also stopped looking twice. There are bigger problems we’re supposed to worry about – jobs, immigration, climate – that don’t leave room to worry about another dead squirrel.

I think about the little red squirrel I’ve been nursing for the past two weeks.

I imagine a hawk swooping his future self up in one second flat. How long would this fellow even last if he makes it outdoors?

I wonder, too, what’s so different between Hazelnut and me. Neither of our lives are guaranteed. But his, at least for now, depends on me. In return, he’s given mine a little more meaning.





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