Anna McLoud Gibbs

My life as a new squirrel mom – Part 1

It’s weird when September arrives and you find yourself NOT doing the things that you always used to do at this time of year, like choosing a cute notebook at Staples that will definitely keep you organized this time around or revisiting your favorite late-night restaurants at 2 am or negotiating with your roommates for the largest bedroom within your suite (lesson learned: bigger square footage doesn’t always equal a bigger-feeling room). This year, the day after my last day of summer, when my boyfriend left for his senior year at UMass Amherst and everyone else in the world was heading back to college (or law school, or med school, or engineering school), I was on my bed scrolling through Instagram. It was a sleepy Sunday. Less than three hours later, I was the new caregiver to an orphaned 3-week-old baby red squirrel.

I had stumbled upon the Instagram story of a high school friend who was a member of the environmental club when I was president. She was one of the sweet, more enthusiastic members who came to all the trash pick-ups. Her Instagram story read: “My idiot cat brought in a baby squirrel.” On the next slide, a video of her and her sisters feeding it with a syringe. And then the next: “I go to college tomorrow and the mother squirrel hasn’t come back for the baby. Can anyone take it?”

To clarify, I’m not doing absolutely nothing right now in my post-grad life. I’m working remotely part-time for Write the World, a super cool writing platform for teenage writers, and attempting to freelance, with a few pitches underway and two pieces in the works with editors. Until recently, I was also catering at my old summer job for more pocket cash. And there’s a lot of reflecting about where I might want to be next, and where I need to apply to make that happen. So I’m not completely floating loose. That being said, I do have a lot more free time than I ever did in high school or at Harvard.

How could I NOT take the squirrel? I had no good reason not to be a good Samaritan. Besides, I couldn’t call myself the former-president-of-high-school-environmental-club and not give this critter a shot at life.

My friend dropped him off at my house a few hours later. Well, her, because we thought it was a girl at first. We know now – due to some interesting squirrel behavior that I will explain in another post – that he is a boy. I brought him to my friend’s house for counsel. He was fast asleep in a small plastic aquarium, with a sock-covered hot water bottle for warmth. My friend’s brother named him Hazelnut. His long nails attach to everything, so I call him Sticky.

Mom pics: Hazelnut’s first formula feeding  & his first solid food.

He was about three-and-a-half weeks old, and his eyes were still shut. They stayed shut until the following Friday night, when I went into my bedroom for his feeding, picked him up, and he blinked at me. I surprised myself by almost crying. Ah, motherhood, my friend would joke. But there’s something so intimate about caring for someone or something, even when it’s tough, maybe especially when it’s tough.

Hazelnut opens his eyes! 

It has been tough. All babies are fragile, and squirrels are no exception. During the first week, he needed to be fed every three hours. Different websites said different things about amounts of formula, and how to feed, and when to feed. I picked up some puppy formula from PetCo – but you have to rehydrate a baby squirrel before you can feed it formula, or it can die. (A Family Dollar worker informed me of this fact very abrasively. “Did you feed it!!??” she exclaimed when I mentioned I was caring for a baby squirrel. After a beat I nodded, and she hollered, “Then you killed it!” I was just trying to buy a heating pad for him.) Baby squirrels also need to have their genitals stimulated in order to urinate – or else their bladders can burst. His little bladder is like a ticking time bomb in his belly that I can reset every three hours with a wet Q-tip. How terrifying is that.

     

Somehow I have two friends who have rehabbed dozens of squirrels: my neighbor, and my brother’s tutor Vicki. I have frequented both of them in the last two weeks for advice and supplies. They provided me with cages and syringes and rodent block and information I never thought I would need to know. Vicki has been in touch with a local rehabber for me to determine next steps. But for now, I’m on call every 3-4 hours.

       

His long legs make him a good escape artist.

A week after I got Hazelnut, I drove to western Mass to visit my boyfriend Esteban. I packed up all of Hazelnut’s things – I felt like a mom with her diaper bags – 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 went up mid-party to feed Hazelnut, Esteban led a crowd of perhaps twenty tipsy college students up the narrow stairs to his bedroom door. It was like a small marching band, and Esteban with the baton. I shooed them away, but a few slipped in and watched quietly while I fed the squirrel. Hazelnut’s first college party.

After Hazelnut eats, Esteban eats.

On the drive home, I passed three dead squirrels on the road. Their tire-tracked bodies are so common that people don’t often look twice. When I was in middle school, 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 as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also stopped looking twice. There are bigger problems; the things we’re supposed to worry about – jobs, immigration, climate, politics – don’t leave room to worry about yet another dead squirrel. And I wonder about the little red squirrel that I’ve been nursing for the past two weeks. I imagine a hawk swooping his future self up in one second flat. How long this fellow would even last if he makes it outdoors. How quickly life ends.

I wonder, too, what’s so different between the two of us. Neither of our lives are very guaranteed. But his depends on a little help from me. And in return, his has given mine a little more meaning.

Hazelnut loves to sprawl on his stomach while eating. 

More updates to come!