30 June 2012

Joining the movement

Oh poo.

Yes, let the potty jokes begin.

Much has been written in the last few weeks about the power of flying squirrel poop - not so much as a lethal projectile from overhead, but as a healer of pain and an aid in blood disorders.

That's right: When it comes to medicinal value, squirrel excrement is excellent. These tiny cast-off nuggets are good as gold, even if their color isn't quite the 14-karat variety.

Squirrel feces in medicine is hardly a New Age notion. This concept of incorporating the tiny flyers' output into beneficial remedies, often through tea-like infusions, dates back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, and it is still being taught at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York. This healing discipline also embraces the output from numerous other terrestrial and arboreal beings (but no doubt the flyers are among the cutest to be pooping for the cause).

Thousands of years of healing power makes for some pretty old poop, for sure. But can America's health care system change to embrace this old-time practice? Will the federal government soon subsidize outhouses for flyers, to facilitate collection of palliative ingredients?

And will these tiny nocturnal rodents soon hang out their shingles, keeping office hours at night, accepting acorns as copayments??

Indeed, our nation's widespread and costly addiction to painkillers could soon be remedied by requiring that all addicts in treatment maintain a colony of flyers who dispense natural analgesics out their back ends. There are, after all, worse things in life than a dependency on squirrels moving their bowels.

Australia, it seems, has already gotten with the program. A June 29 report in The Daily Telegraph heralds the celebrated arrival of such feces in that South Pacific Nation (which has no native flyers of its own). "Quarantine officials have given the green light to therapeutic poo imports, meaning animal dung could be coming to a shop near you," the report announced to its Australian readership.

Open-mindedness to change is a good thing, even if change is something that takes us back thousands of years instead of moving us forward.

And a light-hearted approach to it all can't hurt either. Because laughter is good medicine, too.

So don't be that quick to pooh-pooh. Let's leave that to the flyers.

25 June 2012

One for the books

The squirrels, it seems, do not want us to spend time reading. They'd prefer we invest our hours in pursuits infinitely more sensible and practical.

Feeding them, for instance.

Consider this: Squirrels were never fans of Shakespeare. In his "King Lear," the monarch's mournful cry over a daughter's betrayal - "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child" - clearly underestimates the razor's edge of a squirrel's own incisors.

Today's squirrels have even less tolerance for the written word, even the naughty newbie, "50 Shades of Grey." Its title notwithstanding, its nakedly blatant adventures have nothing to do with the varied spectrum of squirrels' coats. It's about sex - lots and lots of sex - and squirrels don't seem to get any of that action either.

So it came perhaps as no surprise that in one New York county this past weekend, the book-loathing squirrels finally turned to desperate crime.

This wild squirrel antipathy against literacy spurred one singular, widepsread act of destruction: In suburban Suffolk County, a squirrel succeeded in shutting down the library system - or at least, for a few hours, cutting off its main computerized operations by employing a tooth that was likely sharper than a Shakespearean serpent's.

Hard-working librarians no longer had access to their vital databases, rendering them all but useless at assisting patrons.

Victory, for a time, belonged to that group of small mammals relegated to section "599" in the Dewey Decimal System. The category 599, the mammals, seemed suddenly to rise to the ranks of a global superpower.

The squirrels, no doubt, chattered happily knowing that their covert operation meant that even Beatrix Potter's "Squirrel Nutkin," a fictitious creature requiring no real-life handouts, would find frustration in any efforts to leave the shelves. Smugly, Suffolk's squirrels sat back and waited for the hoped-for massive run on grocery stores where readers, left with nothing to read, would become feeders. They would rush to the market, buy up huge quantities of walnuts and pecans, then head for tree-lined parks, bags in hand.

But even power outages don't last forever. In the end, it was much ado about nothing of permanence. As the juice came back on, squirrels' collective hopes dimmed. Their puckish antics were, as Shakespeare himself might say, merely a "Midsummer Night's Dream."

24 June 2012

Going free

His life began, as it does for all squirrels, in darkness. But when the critical 4-week period of his development arrived, bringing the promise of that welcome fifth sense, there was no sunlight to greet him: He'd been born without the eyes that would have let the world in.

The squirrel's rescue was the stuff of myths. We found this small creature ourselves, a gray body rolling about in the midst of traffic on a busy road one early evening in 2002. When we scooped him up, dodging traffic all the while, we discovered he was mysteriously unscathed. His skin betrayed not a single scratch, he harbored not a single flea. He appeared a picture-perfect juvenile of about 15 or 16 weeks, well past the weaning stage. He was, quite possibly, a squirrel of newfound independence from the birth nest.

Except for those eyes. The eyes that weren't.

How a squirrel denied vision could have made it this far - then made it to the center of a well-trafficked thoroughfare - will forever remain a mystery to us. Perhaps even to this squirrel, who was given the name Stevie Wonder. He was, in every way, a wonder - and more.

Our job, as rehabilitators, is not to keep, to collect nor to cage what is rightfully nature's. Our job is to give back, to restore, to make whole again. With Stevie Wonder, this was not possible. A veterinarian's exam confirmed that his eyes had never - and would never - develop. And so this gentle being learned to navigate a vastly narrower world, find joy in food, toys and such simple creature comforts as a hammock.

Ten years passed. A decade borrowed from beneath the crushing wheels of a car can be a gift. And so it was.

We can be certain of two truths central to the work of wildlife rehabilitation: The animals you raise are going to die. They will either die in your care or, someday, out there in the trees, well beyond your care and beyond your own field of vision. Perhaps these are things we are not meant to see.

But still, there are some things we hope to gaze upon: A few days ago, a young male and female squirrel left our care, ecstatically free as they ran out into the sunlit woods, released into the lifetime of wholeness they were born to seek.

That same week, Stevie Wonder took his leave of us. This, however, was a goodbye we had neither planned nor expected. An elderly squirrel, he slipped from the confinement of his sightless body and found his way to his own moment of release.

His life ended as it had begun - in darkness. Shortly before midnight he returned to nature, and the world he never saw made him whole again.

16 June 2012

High and mighty

Rest assured, the squirrels are not impressed with Nik Wallenda. The seventh-generation member of his family's world-famous daredevil act, Wallenda enjoyed a different kind of Niagara Falls honeymoon this week. He went head over heels - all the while keeping his balance - as he walked an 1,800-foot-long tightrope suspended 200 feet over the pounding falls.

"So what?" says our nation's collective chorus of eastern grays, reds, fox squirrels and flying squirrels. "Can he leap from branch to branch at the very tops of hundred-year-old trees? Does this Wallenda guy regularly cross busy highways balanced on a power line - one that is surging, we might add, with dangerous electric juice?

"And what," the squirrels continue, "is the deal with that safety harness?" Indeed, Wallenda's high-altitude, waterscaped border crossing between New York and Canada had the wearable insurance policy of the harness, a presumed requirement of ABC, the TV network that broadcast the nighttime stunt. Understandably, ABC was looking to keep Wallenda as live as the telecast.

Arboreal squirrels of all varieties who are lucky enough to retain their tails for the entirety of their lives are, likewise, equipped by nature with such a harness, albeit a lesser one. But there are no network camera crews lighting their passage across dangerous turf, whether it is wooded, watery or paved - and there are no crowds of well-wishing spectators cheering them on, from either sides of their journey. They are not even guaranteed a particularly grand welcome on the other side, assuming they've achieved safe passage. Predators could be waiting - instead of vendors selling souvenir T-shirts embossed with: "I saw a gray squirrel cross Route 17 and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

For squirrels who traverse the world at high altitudes, such highwire acts are not stunts but survival. So who's the real daredevil here?