Anna McLoud Gibbs

Reunion – Part 5 of the Squirrel Series

Raising a baby animal isn’t over with its release. They have to learn to fend for themselves; in the meantime, it’s important that they have a guaranteed source of food, water, and shelter – much like a college student venturing out into the world on their own. Hazelnut was released pretty late in the year, at the end of October, so he didn’t have time to compile a cache of nuts for the winter. So our job was far from done – with the hopes that he survived the first few weeks of wilderness.

It was hard for us to guess how these early days of freedom would go down. Vicki told us that female squirrels tend to be more reluctant to leave. She’s raised female squirrels who simply did not want to leave when it came time, especially with winter approaching. And Hazelnut seemed reluctant his first day too, or at the very least cautious. Caution is to be celebrated from small rodents who can not afford to be cocky. But he also needed to venture out and make his own life in the wild.

In my reading, websites noted that squirrels can react in very different ways after release. They can disappear for weeks and then return. Others will hang around the yard. Most agreed that the squirrel would probably continue to recognize the person who raised him. Selfishly, I hoped this part was true. I imagined something like a Christian the Lion reunion – a tender embrace, a warm acknowledgment of companionship and history.

All these questions regarding Hazelnut’s behavior post-release, however, were left in the hands of my dad, who would be keeping an eye on Hazelnut for three weeks while I was gone. Hazelnut and I both left home on the same day, so I wouldn’t get to be there for him at the beginning of his freedom. I was sad to miss this part of his life, even if he was predominantly gone during it. What if he came back? What if the fact I was gone confused him?

I had little reason to worry. Every few days my dad texted me updates of Hazelnut’s escapades. He was adapting well to being outdoors, but he returned frequently. My brother texted me that Hazelnut had jumped on the plumber (yikes). One afternoon while my dad and a friend cleaned out our shed – no easy feat – Hazelnut ran into the shed and dashed around them while they worked. On rainy nights, my dad would leave the sunroom door open a crack in case Hazelnut wanted to take shelter in his old canvas bag. (Despite the tarp covering half of his cage, the interior was drenched through, and an inch of stagnant water and dead leaves covered the floor of the cage.) Sure enough, one morning my dad stuck his head over the canvas bag and Hazelnut peered back at him. And wasn’t this the best of both worlds? He was exploring outdoors and enjoying his freedom, but he knew he could come home if he needed a warm, safe place to stay. In fact, wasn’t this the same promise that my home gave me? No matter how far I wandered, I could always come back home and find a warm, safe place waiting.

Hazelnut and I pitched off into the world on a Monday.

Tuesday morning, as I arrived in Rio, a text from my dad: “I just checked Hazelnut’s cage and though I didn’t see him his food was mostly gone so it looks like he stopped by for a snack!” And then, a few hours later: “Hazelnut has returned and is running all over the deck and me, and chowing down peanuts. He looks to be in fine fettle. Here he is, taken just a few minutes ago.”

That night, he returned to his cage for a bit for food.

I received three longer notes from my dad while I was gone that made me smile. I’ll include them here in full:

Wed 10/23, 10:12 am

You’ll be pleased to hear that Hazelnut is enjoying his new found freedom while still hanging pretty close to home. Last night it was pouring out so I checked to see if he was keeping dry. He wasn’t in his outdoor cave so I decided to check the bag in the sunroom. (outside door was closed at the point but had been open earlier) I hardly had my hand in the bag before he shot out and started crawling all over me. It was cool, but I couldn’t get him off of me long enough to avoid having him follow me back into the house. So I called Ben to take my place while I got a couple of peanuts from the fridge. I tossed a peanut on the floor and that allowed me to make my escape.

Today when I came home from my bike ride, he jumped on my shoulder from one of the chairs on the deck as I was walking up the deck stairs. It’s like having an outdoor pet. Hopefully he’ll become more independent as the days go by. But he does seem to spend considerable time away from house, so that’s good.

Fri 10/25 4:20 pm

On Wednesday morning I was awakened by a very loud cry from Bud downstairs. I ran down to find the white cat in the sunroom, face to face with Bud. I shooed him out, and when I went on the deck I was greeted by a frantic squirrel call from one of the trees. I think it was Hazelnut, calling out the invader. I didn’t see any sign of the youngster for the rest of the day and evening. Even his food was untouched. I suspect he was being cautious. Yesterday his food was being eaten again, and today he showed up and we hung out for awhile. He seems to be doing really well, and I’m glad he’s being careful with the cat!

Mon 10/28 9:56 pm

Hazelnut is doing great. Two nights ago it was pouring outside so I left the sliding door slightly open just in case he wanted to sleep in the hanging bag. I checked it before going to bed, and much to my surprise he was there. He didn’t like being woken, and started the call he makes when he feels threatened. So I dashed out with the hope he’d go back to sleep. The last couple of mornings he has greeted me and we’ve hung out. His appetite is strong, and he looks great!

At some point during the last week, I realized I hadn’t received any Hazelnut updates recently. But I was too afraid to ask, in case my dad was purposefully not sharing something sad. (While I was abroad for four months in Denmark, I found out my hermit crab had died weeks after the fact – but in that case he had just forgotten to tell me.) We had our first family video call on my birthday, and my dad told me that he had just seen Hazelnut tonight. It was good birthday news! And good, too, that he was disappearing for longer periods and becoming more independent, as we had hoped.

I was supposed to return home on Sunday, November 10th, but food poisoning got the better of me and I made it back to Boston on Monday, November 11th, around noon, exactly three weeks after I had left. Esteban picked me up and we headed back to Ipswich. I pictured my reunion with Hazelnut – he would run down a tree limb and jump on my shoulder and run up and down my legs. He’d be thrilled to see me. We’d hang out on the porch and I’d feed him peanuts, like my dad had been doing.

Except we wouldn’t.

Some part of me expected him to recognize my voice – murmured to him several times a day for eight weeks, since before he opened his eyes – and that he would appear. As soon as Esteban parked, I left my luggage in the car and ran up to the porch, calling Hazelnut’s name and making chirping noises, looking for him in the trees. Nothing. We went into the sunroom and checked the canvas bag. He wasn’t there. I eyed his cage but didn’t disturb his nest. I had a feeling he wasn’t there either. Dad told us he hadn’t seen him in a few days. I tried not to take it personally. And then I tried not to worry. I hoped he was okay.

The next evening, Tuesday, I left again. I had decided to spend the week in Amherst with Esteban before I started up work at Zumi’s again. I was looking forward to it, but I had thought I’d have both Sunday and Monday in Ipswich. Two days to hang out with Hazelnut. But when he wasn’t there on Monday or Tuesday, I felt bad leaving again, as if he needed me to be there – while also knowing he didn’t need me to be there – while also praying he was alive.

On Wednesday morning at 9:18 am, only 12 hours after I left Ipswich, I got a text from my dad: “Breaking News!! Hazelnut is back!!!”

He was snuggled up in the canvas bag in the sun room. Good instincts – it had been absolutely freezing the night before. He was a resourceful critter. Later that afternoon, Hazelnut ran out of the sunroom and back into the trees. He came back later to eat a grape in the sunroom. Dad decided to leave the door ajar so he could come and go as he needed.

Meanwhile, I was two hours away. But I was happy: Hazelnut was alive! I also was thrilled by his new relationship with my dad, who clearly adored Hazelnut.

I returned home on Friday evening. Hazelnut was out when I returned. I stayed for a little while, hopefully, then reluctantly left once again to go housesit for the weekend at a neighbor’s house. When would I see him again? Would we ever have our Christian-the-Lion reunion?

The next night at midnight, Dad texted me an update: “Hazelnut’s is sleeping in his canvas bag right now. He bit me when I stuck my hand in!”

First thing Sunday morning, I hopped in my car and rushed home. “Hazelnut is awake and ready to see you!” Dad had texted me. He had closed the sunroom door for the night so I could be sure to see him in the morning. I felt a bit guilty for disturbing his normal patterns – but he’d be happy to see me, I was sure.

Except he wouldn’t.

When I entered the sunroom, he was sitting on the coat rack above the canvas bag. I started chirping at him and calling his name like I used to. “Hazelnut, hey Mr. Sweetface,” I cooed. He didn’t run over to me. He watched me. As I got closer, he scurried into the canvas bag. I don’t think I had ever seen him enter this bag; I had only ever found him there mid-nap. And yet now he ran into it – to avoid me? “Hazelnut,” I chuckled lightly. I reached my hand slowly into the bag, and he exploded into it, an annoyed flurry, his little claws scratching my fingers. I could take the hint. I retreated indoors, stung and surprised.

My dad would be the one to lure him out of the bag with a peanut. Once he was sitting on my dad’s shoulder, I entered the sunroom, and Hazelnut ran over to me. For ten glorious minutes, my little fellow was back – he ran up and down my legs, across my arms, leaped from the coat rack to my head and back. I grinned widely as we picked up our old routine where we left off. But he wasn’t my little fellow anymore, in more ways than one – boy, had he grown! He was chubby now, and he looked more mature. His face had become more angular. He felt different too. I couldn’t be sure he recognized me as anything more than a person to run up and down. It was either that, or he recognized me perfectly and had beef with me. Was he mad that I left him? Do squirrels emote like that? I know some animals do – my old cat used to ignore us when we returned from vacation, because he was mad that we left him behind. Alternatively, was he afraid I was there to take away his independence? Did he equate me with his cage, his limitations, his childhood? Was he pushing me away because I represented his old life? Isn’t that what so many college grads do? Take off for a while?

We haven’t seen Hazelnut since that day. After playing with me for a while, he had crouched on top of the coat rack in his anxious posture. I opened the sunroom door, but he didn’t move. We spied the neighborhood black-and-white cat in the yard next door and realized that Hazelnut did, too. Always grateful to see his survival instincts in action. I had to leave for work, and he left a few hours later. It’s been two weeks. The peanuts in the sunroom sit untouched.

A few nights ago, I noticed a massive shape out on the porch and quickly realized it was a raccoon. I had never seen one so huge, or so fluffy. My dad and Ben came running over, and they spotted another one. The fluffier one lumbered over to Hazelnut’s cage and climbed into the flower pot that holds the cage in place. It sniffed at the cage, clearly investigating. After a minute, the two disappeared into the night.

Has Hazelnut made himself another home where he can keep warm? Has he discovered a store of nuts? I wonder about his new world, the one that I can’t follow him into. I feel grateful for his survival instincts that we’ve seen time and again, and I feel hope for him. And I look forward to the day that we meet again, whether as friends or as strangers. He is, after all, a wild animal.