Nugget gains confidence in the trees before her first winter in the wildPhoto by: Earthfire

— by Susan Eirich, PhD —

My brilliant, nearly Nobel-winning scientist father, was flummoxed by a squirrel. Squirrels are not to be taken lightly because they are small and common. We humans make that mistake often.  No matter what contraptions my father set up to foil them, they always got into the bird feeder. His frustration, and my mother’s mischievous delight in it, is a vivid childhood memory.

Squirrels are so remarkable that the BBC committed its resources to doing a full hour-long documentary, where they set up an impossible obstacle course in the trees – and lost.

Nugget the squirrel came to us as a five-day-old rescue having fallen out of her nest. She was found unconscious at the bottom of a tree in Boise. She arrived tucked in a blanket in a basket, curled up deep in the folds. We bottle fed her raw goat milk. It is a delicate task with a very young animal at first, getting the size of the hole in the nipple just right so they are not frustrated and give up, or do not get so much that they get milk in their lungs and die of aspiration pneumonia. We spent quite a few evenings getting new nipples, poking holes in them, boiling them with a toothpick to make it bigger or smaller, and testing it to try to get it just right.

Nugget peeks out from the folds of her blanket, investigating her first almond | Photo by Earthfire

At first she was just a tiny, innocent little thing sleeping all day and night, except for feeding time; helpless, unthinking – preparing. There seemed to be just an empty basket, no energy emanating from it. A good survival technique. After a while, when she heard us open the door, there would be a little movement of blankets, a little more, then a little more – and tiny black nose pushed out followed by two bright black eyes. You could feel the dawning of a new consciousness looking out at the world.

That is the really amazing thing with any baby – the dawning of a new awareness entering the world, curious and eager to learn about the universe they are about to enter. It doesn’t matter if it is a squirrel, a bear, a dog or a human – the process is just so miraculous. Another unique being added to the orchestra of Life on the planet. I think we often take that incredible unfolding for granted.

With an animal with a short life-span such as a squirrel, you see the unfolding and development speeded up. The nose poked out more and more. Followed by more of the body. The sucking down the bottle became more vigorous, more demanding. Then she was out of the basket and began chittering for food. Soon we had to move her to a cage which we hung outside so she could get used to the weather. For another couple of weeks we still saw little of her. I would try to engage her in solid food, offering her shelled nuts. It is always such a worry. Is the timing right? Is she getting enough nutrition? Will she move to solid food? If so when? Will she learn to drink water?  How long do we give her the bottle to be sure she has enough liquid until she learns to drink for herself? Unless you watch a baby all the time, it’s hard to tell these things. We began to notice little nut shavings and were encouraged. Then she discovered what her teeth were for when we gave her nuts in a shell.  She liked that. But she really liked her walnuts pre-shelled for her.

As the unfolding progressed, she became more and more awake, beginning to just vibrate with the life force in her. But she was saving energy for becoming a blinding ball of energy. It was like a switch turned on, and we had a squirrel on amphetamine racing, whirling, twirling around her cage like a whirling dervish.

We decided it was time to open the door. It took a few cautious minutes till she peered out. We turned our back for a minute, and she was gone. We heard her scrabbling in the wood pile on the porch – then silence. Panic! I think on all our parts actually. We eventually found her around the back of the cabin on a wood pile. I called and she came scampering across the ground towards me. I held out a nut, picked her up and put her back in. Realizing she had probably fallen out of the cage rather than climbed up and out to the wall behind her as we expected, we put a squirrel ladder out for her. She took to it immediately. Raced down, and scampered across the ground all excited. Jean, unthinking, walked away to do errands and behind this burly man in big boots and heavy jacket ran a tiny little squirrel. She didn’t have any guidance about where to go and what was safe, other than humans, and he was her guide. I called to him and he turned around, saw her, and led her to the base of the large willow tree in front of the cabin. She took to it like a duck to water. A little nervous the first few minutes. But the next day there was an Olympic-quality aerial artist leaping, doing somersaults, going out thin moving limbs to the very edge. She loved it, she loved it, she loved it.

As Nugget grew we were constantly amazed by her sheer incredible athleticism. When I held her she was all toned, taut muscle. Her thighs were muscular, her hands and feet with their long mobile fingers and toes a study in flexibility and strength.  I kept thinking of the cheetah; that a squirrel was on a par with that elegant, superbly designed creature. Within a day in the tree she was hanging upside down, uncoiled to her full length, with only one claw on each foot hooked into the rough bark of the willow tree, hanging free, as her front paws held and tackled a large walnut. The unselfconscious power and coordination even at a few weeks old was mind- blowing. The balance as she raced about the tree with its thin, flexible limbs and leaped from twig to twig – hard to believe. I kept thinking of Elissa, the woman who brought her to us instead of keeping her as a pet, saying, “She needs to be a squirrel.” So true. She needed to express the incredible capacities that came with being that creature – the sheer physical joy of it.

Along with her physical attributes came a strong, demanding personality. She wanted what she wanted what she wanted and she wanted it NOW. And was pretty good at finding a way to get it. This was at  a mere ten weeks of age.

Because she didn’t have a mother to teach her, and we had dogs and ermine on the property, we would put her back in at night. But she wasn’t thrilled about it. She was ready to be a squirrel. I called the women Elissa who brought her to us and learned that she didn’t come from our area at all, but from across the state in Boise, lower in altitude and warmed. We located the gentleman who had rescued her originally. He offered to pick her up and put her back in the very tree she fell from and ask his mother, who lived close by, to look after her until she adjusted. A good ending (or beginning). But the land here will be a little less vibrant without her presence.  

We make a mistake when we are impressed by size or rarity. There is utter amazement everywhere; intelligence, the drive to live, the joy of life, everywhere.  In a squirrel we see the cuteness, but there is a very serious and vibrant survivalist in there. There was wonder watching an intelligent life unfold. But the sheer competence and determination is the impression I am left with the most.

Back to my brilliant nearly Nobel-winning scientist father with a mere human brain. He didn’t stand a chance. And he never did win that battle.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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