by Anna Gibbs
This is the fourth article in a series in which Anna outlines what she learned about nature and herself rescuing a baby squirrel. The other articles can be read here.
From the first day of raising Hazelnut the squirrel, the goal has been to release him into the wild.
This required, firstly, that he survive infancy.
He needed to develop instinctual behaviors, like opening nuts and making nests.
And finally, he couldn’t be tame. Though he felt like a member of the family, he was a wild animal.
He needed to be uncomfortable around cats, dogs, and humans, and he needed to experience natural things, like leaves, pinecones, and the fear of hawk wings casting shadows across the grass.
Though I spent the past month and a half working on these three goals to optimize his survival outdoors, I couldn’t fulfill many important aspects of his development.
In the nest, he would have nursed whenever he was hungry; he would have interacted with other squirrels.
I, his human proxy mom, gave him the best care I could, but he still grew up with a hot water bottle instead of a mother’s warmth, towels instead of a bed of leaves, and four walls.
Raising Hazelnut required extensive research. Though different sources quibbled over squirrel-rearing specifics, every “How to Raise a Baby Squirrel” website agreed on one thing: do not raise a baby squirrel.
Ideally, the abandoned squirrel should be returned to its mother. The second-best option is certified wildlife rehabbers.
Plenty of information about raising squirrels exists on the internet, but rehabbers are experienced and can care for multiple orphaned squirrels simultaneously, ensuring social interaction.
I was unable to find another home for Hazelnut, but I felt comfortable raising him because I had two experienced rehabber friends a phone call away.
If you ever find a baby squirrel, make the decision that optimizes the squirrel’s survival.
If you are taking care of them until you find a rehabber, do your research, because their lives are especially fragile in their first few weeks.
I began preparing for Hazelnut’s release when he was 11 weeks old.
Squirrels can typically be released between 10 and 12 weeks, but I wasn’t sure Hazelnut was ready for the wild.
He certainly had the energy; he leaped from the coat rack, to my head, to the window screen, with grace and great agility.
But as I watched his movements, I worried about the way I raised him.
What if I hadn’t optimized his survival odds? Once I released Hazelnut, I would lose any control over his life.
He could be killed by a car, bird, cat, toxin – and it could happen within minutes of his being released.
I always knew I would have to accept this potential fate, but I didn’t fully realize the weight of responsibility that came with letting go.
Had I done everything right while I had the chance? Did he need another week in the sunroom? Had he become too friendly with our cat, Henry?
On the planned Release Day, I let Hazelnut run around the sunroom while I cleaned his cage.
It was a warm and sunny Saturday, perfect for his first day exploring the backyard.
Henry, an indoor cat and clever escape artist, also thought it was a good day for exploring. I chuckled when I saw him trotting around the deck outside the sunroom.
Hazelnut immediately sensed Henry’s presence. After standing motionless for a moment, Hazelnut ran up my leg and sat on my shoulder.
Suddenly, he started stomping his feet and chattering an alarm call of squeaks, chirps, and barks.
Though he was terrified, I was overjoyed: it proved to me that not only did Hazelnut know cats were predators, but he knew that even Henry, the cat that Hazelnut had regarded with mild curiosity over the past weeks, was a threat.
It assured me that Hazelnut was ready for the world.
Though Saturday was meant to be Release Day, Hazelnut had different plans.
By the time I had securely attached his cage to the deck fence, covered half of it with a tarp to protect his nest box from the rain, and gave him time to get used to the new location of the cage (which we would leave with the door open so he could return at any time), he had decided to take a nap, from which he refused to wake up.
I offered him a peanut; no interest. Half an hour passed and I tried again.
This time he chattered angrily and head-butted my finger. He was napping whether I liked it or not. The sun sank in the sky. We had lost the day.
Sometimes, a friend told me, we have to go with the flow and trust the universe.
My family opened the cage door on Sunday afternoon instead. Hazelnut spent a couple of hours running up and down all the legs in his proximity and timidly exploring the entirety of the deck.
He didn’t even make it to the yard. I was relieved that he stayed close. As night fell, we closed him back in the cage, and he snuggled into his nest box to sleep.
So it was that the universe decided that Monday would be the day Hazelnut wandered off into the great unknown.
I opened the cage door in the morning, spent a few minutes with him, and went inside. When I came out a few hours later, he was gone.
Monday was also the day that I wandered off into the great unknown. I was heading to the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil to volunteer with a reforestation nonprofit for three weeks.
It was my first completely solo trip and my first time in a country whose inhabitants did not speak much English.
I was terrified. But I knew I needed to do my part in helping the planet.
Sometimes that’s raising a baby squirrel. And now, for me, it was planting trees in a vastly deforested part of the world.
As I left the house that afternoon to head to the airport, Hazelnut emerged from nowhere, bounded up to me, and ran up my leg.
The universe decided that he and I would both head into the great unknown today. But not alone.
Stay tuned for the last segment in the series to hear Hazelnut stories from my time away and, hopefully, a happy reunion.
A native of Ipswich, Anna Gibbs is a recent college graduate and science journalist. More articles in the series can be read here.