26 April 2012

Lights! Action! ... Squirrel???

He is our nation's Next Big Action Hero.

Picture Clint Eastwood with ear tufts and dagger-like incisors.

Envision Bruce Willis with a bushy tail (or with any hair, for that matter).

Or how about Arnold Schwarzenegger, minus the sex scandals.

Meet RoboSquirrel, fearless defender of the free world - his free world, that is, which likely consists of his family and their well-hoarded, well-guarded stash of eats.

Scientists have long been mesmerized by western squirrels' talents at standing up successfully in the face of fear, when fear is named "rattlesnake" and wields a venomous bite. In such encounters, however, adult squirrels, it seems, just don't get rattled.

In an attempt to decode their successful military strategy, researchers at UC Davis built a robotic squirrel - think "Squirrminator" - pre-programmed his tail to take remote commands, replicating the real thing's responses witnessed in nature. Then they released him into the wild (as all good squirrels must someday be, even robotic ones.)

Unlike the real thing, these robosquirrels could now do two important things on demand: wave their semaphore-like tails in a pre-arranged pattern responding to danger, and raise those same tails' temperature, as needed, to put some extra heat on any standoff with a snake.

Researchers have come to believe that the heat does the trick more than anything else, leaving the snake to slither away with his tail tucked between....well, whatever snakes have.

Squirrels can already leap tall buildings in a single bound - or at least a tree of that architecture's equivalent size - so getting a scaly ground-dweller to back off in the dirt seems, by comparison, a walk in the park, or perhaps a slink in the woods.

Still, scientists are impressed. They say this infrared communication is far more subtle and sophisticated than anyone could have imagined. Yes, it's the same kind of infrared we sometimes use for connectivity between our printers, our hand-held computers and our other geek toys. But let us state, for the record, the squirrels had it first. Not Apple. Not Microsoft. Not Hewlett-Packard. No doubt the squirrels are already gnashing their incisors, working on the next major version of Bluetooth.

Worry not, their hard work on this development will not be compromised by any security leaks to the media. Not even the scientists at UC Davis are getting a peek at this. RoboSquirrel is standing guard, keeping these secrets safe from any corporate vipers and others who might rattle and tattle.

20 April 2012

There will be no R.S.V.P.

An open letter to the squirrels I am about to release this season:

Most of all, be safe.
Millions of years of evolution have prepared you for what you face now: the hawk or owl above, the fox below. The hurricanes that lie in wait. The droughts.

The exquisite balance in your bones will keep you poised, as it did your ancestors, with each leap you take to the tiniest wisp of a branch, and you will do it at unthinkable heights.

You are ready. This moment has been in the making since time and squirrels began. As for me, I have had only weeks, maybe months with you. When it comes to such partings, then, I am not quite so evolved. Forgive me.

Oh, it's not that you break my heart as you soar free today. My heart would have been shattered had you not made it to this point. But I will miss you.
So, be safe. And if you encounter others from seasons past out there in the trees, you may not know it. But the footprints you see before you are theirs. Yes, this has happened before. It's just that names and stories no longer matter out here. Under this canopy, the orphaned infant, the brother and sister hammered by the storm, and the adult savaged by the cat are all the same.
All free.
Be as grateful for this moment as I myself had been, barely months earlier, for that moment you were carried through our door and into our care.
Be glad too you are going now.
But most of all, be safe.

17 April 2012

Ring bling

Question: What is precious, multi-faceted, priceless and the shining centerpiece of the 2011 World Series championship rings given recently to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team?

Wrong answer: 103 diamonds and 50 rubies, at a total weight of 2.62 carats in gemstones.

Correct answer: A tiny but very distinctive image of the team's Rally Squirrel. That's the real gem of the 14-karat white gold package. That's the squirrel credited with giving the players' season a world championship performance in Busch Stadium, by virtue of making an appearance twice.

Since his lucky run on the field last season - followed by the team's own good fortunes - the squirrel has also appeared (in a decidedly more planned fashion) on bobblehead dolls, as a plush toy, and as an image on T-shirts and baseball cards, for starters.

The Jostens ring shows the Rally Squirrel airborne across home plate, right below the team's ruby-encrusted logo. But he is not stealing home: He has more than earned his right to own home plate.

His legs are outstretched as he runs, full speed, into history. And that's good as gold. Perhaps better.

13 April 2012

Justice for Luca

His only crime was that he was born a baby squirrel. Being wild, helpless, orphaned and alone were reasons enough for him to be cruelly targeted.

In the eyes of those who would willfully hurt animals and need any justification at all, another's innocence and defenselessness will often suffice. The little squirrel possessed both traits and, because of that, was doomed at his assailants' hands and at the mercy of their feet.

Judged guilty of his crime, the squirrel was sentenced: And so it began, the prodding, the badgering, the kicking. These predators, overwhelmingly larger than the few ounces they sought to destroy, were little more than youngsters themselves: Human children engaged in an act, not borne of indifference but deliberate cruelty.

But he is alive today. One person stood between this baby and certain slow death. An observant rescuer stopped to save him - one small squirrel in a vast, busy city - and his rescuer found someone who could harbor him and heal him.

And now Luca - so named by the New York City wildlife rehabilitator who took him in and is helping his battered body recover - is safe.

It is a privilege to read the story of his rescue and recovery since then, as told through social media such as Facebook. One look into his bright eyes, as seen in the earliest photos his loving caretaker has shared, says he is not ready to give up on the world, even though he fell into it long before he was equipped to meet its challenges. One look into his bright eyes says he is ready to meet those challenges now because he is not doing it alone. He has someone in his corner and he can get down to the business of being a baby squirrel again.

His body is healing but his spirit - you can see it in his eyes - never once suffered from those deadly blows.

If wanting to be alive, even in a cruel world, is indeed a crime, then perhaps Luca is guilty of something after all. But then so are we, the ones who lift up their bruised bodies, cradle them gently in our palms, then help them get on with their lives.

08 April 2012

The Squirrel Games?

Everyone is a killer - or possesses that lethal potential - in "Catching Fire," the second book in Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy.

Yes, even the squirrels. As the narrative recounts one such historic fight-to-the-death competition among young citizens of this post-apocalyptic nation, even the squirrels enter the mix, and they are ascribed with such terrifying attributes as being "fluffy," "golden" and "flesh-eating."

Of course: These are a natural combination. Especially if you happen to be a filbert.

In the first, eponymous book, squirrels are relegated to a more traditional and, alas, more unfortunate role: they are the game (with a lower-case "g") - the hunted, the victims - perhaps not so dissimilar from the young and tragic Hunger Games warriors themselves who populate the novel. In a sorry land of want and deprivation, they are all on the receiving end of so much unpleasant weaponry.

The squirrels' transformation into carnivorous bushytails, however, is quite a feat to pull off, even in the sequel's fictional account. Is this an invention of genetic engineering or perhaps just the byproduct of a tortured, sleepless night endured by the author herself after too much late-night, poorly digested trail mix?

Squirrels, as we all know, do have the potential to be fully equipped tools of mass destruction. Don't let the cute faces fool you. That bushy tail can cloak any number of deadly weapons, from woodland IEDs to granola grenades. And let's not get started on those pearly whites, particularly the front incisors which, as "open-rooted" teeth, grow ad infinitum, always renewing their sharpness, ready for action. These are teeth that can grow into infinity, if need be. They are a dentist's fantasy, a warrior's fancy, and one fiction writer's flight into Hell itself, apparently.

All of this literary defamation, if not humiliation, occurs at the start of a most auspicious annual rite, the launch of Squirrel Week by The Washington Post. Clearly, not all writers - and certainly not columnist John Kelly - view Sciuridae as natural-born killers.

The Squirrel Anti-Defamation League can rest easy where the Post is concerned. But let's hope they're keeping a mindful eye on Suzanne Collins, who perhaps needs a form of therapy no stronger than to sit down with several hours of the classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Or let Collins spend a few hours in New York's Central Park - or Washington D.C.'s Mall - feeding nut meats to roving bands of toothy marauders.

However we choose to play it, let the Games begin.

03 April 2012

Wisdom of the ancients

Who can resist a 30,000-year-old squirrel?

For one thing, you won't find many 30,000-year-olds at your back door begging for nuts. But even if you did, would you deny him (or her) the luxury of a pecan? Many of us have been raised to venerate the old and presumably wise. So if we could, we would honor this rodent who has been transformed by the passage of time into a treasured rarity. We would readily open our hearts, our back doors and our nut stashes: After all, any squirrel who has been begging for handouts successfully for several millenia is surely, by now, a seasoned and polished pro at the game.

But there are other reasons to celebrate Grandpa, who in this case, was most likely a ground squirrel. This elder statesman is not the same creature as Scrat, Hollywood's "Ice Age" film protagonist who is, by all accounts, a thief of hearts as well as hazelnuts. Grandpa is no player in an animated cartoon - he is instead the centerpiece of an article in a scholarly journal, Nature, which broke big news in the squirrel world with the recent headline: "Wild flower blooms again after 30,000 years on ice: Fruits hoarded by ancient ground squirrels give new life to prehistoric plants."

OK so the headline isn't exactly tabloid fodder. There's no bitter divorce with allegations of nut-cache thievery or squabbling over who gets custody of the walnuts. There's no ugly, name-calling chatter that ends up on reality shows or the evening news.

This is, however, a story about a rare gift - legacy from long ago that we modern humans can enjoy, thanks to squirrels. A plant that thrived on the mammoth steppe of Siberia has supposedly been brought back from the dead, or at least from a very long sleep deep in the permafrost, by scientists who unearthed seeds and fruits that had been buried there about 30,000 years ago by ground squirrels. With great care, the scientists harvested placental tissue from these plants and gently cultivated it in a laboratory setting until shoots came into being.

An earlier attempt to grow the actual seeds themselves failed when the seeds died shortly after germination. The laboratory plants, however, did grow and mature from the placental tissue and eventually produced fertile seeds - and a second generation of plants.

Why should we even care? Because this long-ago link to our planet's Ice Age roots begins in these seeds. It's a gift from these small rodents who populated our planet hundreds of thousands of years ago, doing just what squirrels do now - they gathered and buried their food. Squirrels have given us yet another link to our planet's beginnings.

You may not be able to personally thank a 30,000-year-old squirrel for this thriving collective of laboratory plants that holds secrets to our origins. But you can be a little nicer when there's a scratch at your back door - and a hungry-looking pair of eyes meets your gaze.