By Anna Gibbs
When Hazelnut – the squirrel I’ve been nursing from infancy – was five weeks old, he opened his eyes for the first time.
I held him in my hands, and we regarded each other. It occurred to me that I was the first living creature he had seen; I wondered if he thought he looked like me.
And as we gazed at each other, though we did not have family or species in common, I was struck by the similarity between us. It didn’t matter that he was a squirrel.
He was a child without a mother who needed someone to take care of him. That was something I understood.
Opening his eyes was the first milestone of many, and then the milestones came rapidly.
First it was walking: a slow but bright-eyed wobble across the floor of his new cage.
Then it was clumsy climbing, and then a big lifestyle change: less sleeping. For the first few weeks, Hazelnut woke only when it was time to eat (honestly, I get that).
But by the time he was six weeks old, he woke up on his own accord, and he occasionally woke me up too with his clattering and squeaking.
At seven-and-a-half weeks old, Hazelnut was no longer a baby. I placed him somewhere in the teenage years.
He was endearingly irritable, feisty, and didn’t respect authority. When I tried to clean his face after feeding (the dried formula can clump and make his cheek fur fall off), he chattered moodily at me.
I think he was trying to say: “Hey, I can do it myself!” Sure enough, he began using his paws to wash his own face.
Around this time, Hazelnut also started the gradual transition from syringe-fed formula to solid food.
His first fruit was a blueberry, which he ate with his back towards me. He loves green grapes and avocado, but he turns his nose up at a growing list of vegetables, including zucchini, broccoli, and sweet potato.
He finally opened his first peanut after two weeks of trying to crack the shell. I was very proud of him.
I was finally relieved of the task of stimulating Hazelnut’s genitals to help him urinate, as baby squirrels cannot do so on their own.
Now he peed with prowess and full projectile on to my carpet. On that note, here’s another fun squirrel fact: infant squirrels, blind and hungry, will clamp their mouths on to anything that seems like a nipple.
In a squirrel litter, usually around four youngsters, that can sometimes mean a brother’s penis. I chuckled when I read this factoid in my initial online research – “how bizarre!” exclaimed naive me – but didn’t pay much mind to it, because I only had one squirrel and so no mix-ups to worry about.
But Hazelnut solved that problem with ease: I found him curled into a ball contentedly suckling his own personal … nipple.
I had to nip that behavior in the bud (pun intended) when, one early morning at 4 a.m., his penis looked so painfully inflamed I was afraid to feed him in case he couldn’t use it to empty his bladder.
My solution was to feed him more frequently with smaller amounts: I went from every five hours back to every three and a half hours.
Eventually I was able to reduce his feedings to every eight hours, and he became much healthier down below.
As he grew, so did his energy. We located our old rat cage – yes, my family used to have pet rats – so that Hazelnut could run around in a bigger space.
He was still young, so I let him play in the rat cage during the day and returned him at night to his smaller cage, where he had warm blankets and a heating pad.
Within days, however, he refused to return to his original home after play time; he wanted to be in his new big-kid house.
After 15 minutes of trying to get him to sleep in the small cage, I finally gave up. (Is this what parenting feels like?).
We added toys and a nest box, and he seemed to feel comfortable and entertained in his larger space, albeit still confining for a growing squirrel.
During these weeks, he took perverse delight in peeing on my shirt, sitting on my back where I couldn’t reach him, and carving tic-tac-toe boards into the backs of my hands with his sharp nails. And yet there were many sweet moments that took me back to the night he opened his eyes for the first time.
Sometimes, while eating formula, he wrapped a paw around my finger.
He liked to play hide-and-seek under a towel. He loved getting his tummy tickled; he’d pull at my fingers begging for tickles, and I could almost hear laughter as he wiggled ecstatically in my hands.
When he nibbled gently on my finger, his teeth felt like a fingernail. And, in the mornings, he stretched and yawned like a small person emerging from a long nap.
A native of Ipswich, Anna Gibbs is a recent college graduate and science journalist. Next week she tells how she prepared Hazelnut for his transition to the great outdoors. More articles in the series can be read here.