24 July 2020

From Vermont, With Love

A global pandemic has brought the world to a screeching, frightening halt. Many of us now live in quarantine, in panic, and in doubt that our lives will never be the same again.

So please, I ask you to take a moment and consider Rocky.

This tiny red squirrel entered rehabilitation care in Vermont last autumn with his very life on the edge. It was questionable whether that life would even go forward properly – or at all. He was in critical condition and only one-third the weight a red squirrel ought to be. In the days that followed, he failed to grow and gain and his tiny body rejected the wildlife formula that was supposed to infuse him with restorative vitamins, the foundation for restarting his life. Only after his caretaker at Four Wands Wildlife discovered that this fragile nursing baby had a lactose-intolerance, and made the necessary adjustments for him, could he begin to take shape as the squirrel he was meant to be.

“Fight like a squirrel,” his caretaker posted on social media, next to his photos – and indeed, true to the name inspired by the boxer of Hollywood legend, Rocky pulled no punches. More legendary perhaps than Sylvester Stallone’s screen role, little Rocky amassed thousands of followers on Instagram and a universe of good will as he fought like a squirrel. Oh, and in case you are wondering, he was declared champion.

Earlier today, the gloves came off. The hatch opened and Rocky touched the dirt of the outside world as if it were an old friend. He cast his eyes high into the trees where his difficult journey had first taken its detour last year. For Rocky, this was as much a reunion as it was a release. He embraced the earth and sky that are his birthright.

So ask Rocky if in our pandemic-shattered midst, the world has begun to turn once again – that is, if you can catch up to him. He fought like a squirrel and now he is living as a squirrel.

As for us, it may take another season or two before we too can open the hatch and fully celebrate a reunion with our own worlds. So please, take a moment and think of Rocky. He runs free for all of us.

06 October 2019

A world diminished by loss

In the many photos and videos on social media that form the touchstones of this small squirrel’s life, sunlight infuses his coat with a glow, his eyes twinkle with mischief and the love of his caretaker - his human brother - is evident.

At first, a palm squirrel’s imprint on this earth does not seem to amount to much. Perhaps on average, each adult of this species weighs a bit more than 100 grams - or close to a quarter pound. In the U.S., we are denied the privilege of personally knowing these tiny treasures of southeast Asia. But in the moving images on popular social media sites, we see readily how much weight they really have as citizens of their part of the planet. For those who ascribe to Hindu legend, palm squirrels are sacred squirrels, their stripes visible proof that they were loved and protected by Lord Rama. Rama, legend says, saved them from certain death, comforting and stroking them with his fingers after successfully wresting them from enemy assault. The stripes that appear on their backs are - according to that same legend - a reminder of Rama's powerful gestures of comfort.

The more secular, contemporary legend of one Sri Lankan squirrel named Sweepy has its sacred moments too. Those of us who care deeply about these tiny members of the Order Rodentia can grow to know palm squirrels, even from afar, through online friendships with their human families. There is so much to gain from their videos and photos. Those images preserve their fleeting three-dimensional lives forever in the two-dimensional realm of sound and image. Once again we see that glow of sunlight, that twinkle and all the love.

Sweepy's physical body has just completed its adventure on earth. He departed, having been given the gift of more than 6 years on the planet, a milestone unseen by the majority of other palm squirrels.

This noble citizen of Sri Lanka, rescued as a baby, lived to be doted on. He was joined in his squirrel games by a human brother who did not draw the line between “man” and “squirrel,” but simply united the two as brethren. With this family, Sweepy found security and love. With this family, he was comforted and stroked when he was sick or hurting – and countless times he returned the favor. None of us can ask for more in life than that, even if that life comprises only six trips of our planet around the sun.

Now as Earth turns on its axis, it moves with 100 or so grams missing from its cargo of passengers. This sweet creature known as Sweepy has taken his energy elsewhere.

But if you sit quietly - very quietly - you can still feel that pulse. It beats within a realm that we cannot capture in any photos or videos. Sunlight now infuses his very being with its eternal glow. And if you close your eyes and look within, you’ll know the universe itself is twinkling now.

17 February 2017

Ambushed by a Bushytail

The week started well for Rumor, the 5-year-old German shepherd anointed on Feb. 13 by the American Kennel Club as Westminster's Best in Show. Shepherds, known for their beauty, their heart, their loyalty -- and now their sense of chic, since this honor also fell during New York Fashion Week -- are also stalwart symbols of the Long Leash of the Law. As the K9 officers who serve beside them will attest, it takes a lot of work to best a German shepherd, especially in the field of law enforcement.

Until now.

Enter Joey, all 2 pounds of him - and all squirrel.

Or let us say: enter Joey but break-and-enter a teenaged would-be burglar who found his way inside the home of Adam and Carmen Pearl in Meriden, Idaho. Joey apparently had been resting, as he often does, in his favorite hammock when the interloper loped in with serious theft on his mind.

Born to gather and cache nuts as his birthright and his privilege, Joey appears to equally respect and defend the right of Mr. and Mrs. Pearl to do the same -- whatever nuts may be of their choosing. And so the young fox squirrel sprang into action to defend his family's nut stash. He became airborne with such polished aim as to land directly on the burglar as the teen tried to crack - well, not a nut, but the family's safe.

Local media accounts say the acrobatic feat was sufficient to scare the miscreant off. The young suspect was later tracked down - though media reports don't say whether the arresting officers were humans or whether they called in their own German shepherds to sniff the suspect out.

Or perhaps this was a case for Secret Squirrel, Hanna Barbera's trenchcoat-clad sleuth?

This surely would have made one fine episode for that Sixties-era rodent spy. And this time the spotlight would have been only for Joey, the Pearl family's six-month-old backyard rescue -- anointed Best in Show after all.

22 February 2016

The end

And so, it is done.

Euthanasia does not empower us to act as God but exhorts us to listen, simply as equals here on Earth, and to do the other's bidding with compassion and heart.

We take up this task, but it is not easy. And perhaps it is not so much a task but a trust.

Ultimately, it is not even a choice.

The wildlife rehabilitator's role is to facilitate healing. So often we fall short. We are, in the end, creatures helping fellow creatures - and nothing more. Nature is bigger and grander. Nature is more dispassionate.

The animals in our care do not judge us. We are no more, and are no less, in their eyes, regardless of outcome. What matters is that we tried. They know that. Because our struggle is theirs.

And so, it is done. Not by salve or potion or healing touch, but it is done. His burden is lifted now.

I do not subscribe to the vision of Rainbow Bridge, but I do believe in the spirit. And in those moments as it left behind the body neither of us could restore, his spirit surely grew lighter.

26 May 2015


Ultimately, this is what it comes to: a reaching for the edge of the known universe, like Christopher Columbus dawning upon the new world.

But the world that greets this newly released squirrel is an old one. To him it is an ancient, familiar turf. The brown of his eyes, savoring their encounter with the wooded landscape, is the same hue as the forest floor. The woods, this squirrel -- the two are inextricable from one another's genes. He feels it: This was his world long before his eyelids even parted to welcome the sunlight, the same light that streams across his face now as he contemplates the changing edge of his known world.

In the parlance of wildlife rehabilitation, this is the process called "release." But that suggests an imprisonment, a holding against one's will. Though hand-rearing and captivity is the consequence of nature interrupted, not the natural order of things, the intervention provides a lifesaving grace, a second chance, a way back into the life that is written into their bones.

And so he reaches - first, for that formative touch of soil, then the fallen leaves and ultimately the trees. He steps forward. He steps back.

He leaps.

And then he turns his brown eyes away forever. He does not look back. He has sailed over the horizon, landing sure-footed on that distant continent.

10 March 2014

Sci Fi at the feeder

This is for all the Sci-Fi fans, devotees of fantasy literature. For if there are any audible sounds that can inspire wild, fanciful impossibility, they can be summoned by uttering these five simple syllables:

"Outwitting Squirrels."

With this optimistic mantra as his book title, author Bill Adler Jr. has launched the third edition of the popular how-to, penned ostensibly to defend the honor and integrity of our nation's birdfeeders. But those of us in the know, the lucky few with the inside track, are painfully aware that this treatise is merely thin disguise for the anthem of a movement to thwart a purported Apocaplypse of American Democracy. By now, it is no secret: There are plans for a coup that will establish Government By Squirrel. (This is not, as some allege, a movement born in the underground. In fact, most of the conspiracy is taking shape in the treetops).

Adler's words serve as gentle propaganda to alert the masses of political overthrow proliferating on our lawns. Why else would his book feature an otherwise handsome visage of a squirrel, brazenly depicted on the front cover, depicting an unsuspecting Eastern Grey Squirrel as Snidely Whiplash, complete with bowler and moustache? This image is obviously PhotoShopped: no self-respecting squirrel would be caught in a bowler, and such stylized facial hair went out in the '60s.

The book's heart and soul, though, is the "101 Cunning Strategems" as its manifesto, many of which make an attempt to be cruelty-free. (The lack of a call for military intervention, by the way, is commendable - not just because most conflicts can, and should, be solved without militia and bloodshed, but because our nation's Department of Defense budget is already strained above its limits, and such open combat with the nation's rodentia has the potential to make the Crusades look like grade-school recess.) The squirrels would win, anyway.

Perhaps, though, if the word "war" is to be used at all in this context, it is best to invoke the image of the Cold War.

Indeed, in one chapter, "What to do if you think squirrels are cute," the author even offers a photo - no PhotoShopping here - of then-Soviet security chief Mikhail Dokuchayev feeding a squirrel on the lawn of the White House in 1988, at the time of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's visit. (No question about the symbolism here, even though none of the squirrels in our nation's capital are now - or have they ever been - Red squirrels.)

And so we say this to Bill Adler: Your rights to free speech (and the freedom of your book's presses) are protected by the same Constitution that safeguards the squirrels' inalienable rights to crack their nuts in peace. And at heart I sense that the science of your fiction is more fiction than it is science. Toward that end, Strategy #101 exhorts us, perhaps a bit breathlessly, to "decide that squirrels aren't so bad after all."

Smart thinking, Mr. Adler, for they are, even now, ascending the trees enroute to the American Presidency. The Revolution will not be stopped. (Besides, a squirrel statesman could do no more harm than the past few administrations.) Therefore, open your heart and the nut-filled palm of your hand and - to borrow a phrase from some old Sci-Fi classics - Take Us to Your Feeder.

28 January 2014

Groundhog's honor

There's no sense in trying to corrupt the incorruptible. No sense in trying to buy what's not for sale. So try as you might, you can’t bribe yourself into an early spring:

Punxsutawney Phil is not accepting PayPal, AmexGold or even plain hard (frozen hard) cash. With our own local New York groundhogs, it could be a different story: Malverne Mel may be malleable, Holbrook Hal may be hedgy and Staten Island Chuck may be swayed by New York City politics, but deep in the heart of rural Pennsylvania where Groundhog Day has its deepest roots, Phil’s going to tell it like it is. If he turns a cold shoulder to your misery, well, that’s his job.

Our nation’s prognosticating rodent is no Polar Pete, he’s no Vortex Vinnie, no Arctic Artie. Phil's the latest in a long line of prediction professionals, proud of the heritage that puts him in the spotlight, and out of the shadows, for one day each year.

What? You’d rather swap him out for Scrat, the prehistoric cartoon squirrel from the hit “Ice Age” films? After all, gregarious, undaunted Scrat not only could foresee the weather that lay ahead of the world, he then went out and actually caused it, and simply by pursuing the beloved acorn of his dreams, he changed the shape of entire continents.

Ah, if only it were that easy. But Phil, you see, is going to keep this game honest. He’ll declare his weather decision at the break of dawn and hours later, that very same day, he’ll decline to offer cold calculations on the Super Bowl. In fact, he’ll probably sleep right through it because spring’s own kickoff is the only one he cares about and that’s still a few weeks away.

You see, Phil is so downright upright that, even when he's curled up in happy hibernation 4 or 5 feet below, he's still a stand-up guy.

01 January 2014

New Year's party animals

The squirrels of New York, it seems, went to bed on New Years Eve 2013 in a singles bar and woke up, New Years Day 2014, in a bordello.

Suddenly the treetops have become X-rated.

Suddenly you have to be 18 years of age -- or older -- for permission to feed the squirrels.

Suddenly the phrase, “Don’t touch my nuts,” takes on a whole new connotation.

It was barely a half-day into the new year and I’d personally interrupted more than a few, uh, baby boom production teams in executive session. And not a single one of these creative confabs was preceded by so much as a candlelit acorn supper or even a movie (“Nut Job,” perhaps? Why not? The animated film is being released later this month under the banner, “No Nuts, No Glory.”)

Anyone looking to get a piece of tail -- even bushytail -- more efficiently than a treetop tryst should perhaps consider online dating.

As if these libidinous visuals weren't enough to contend with, the nonstop squeaking and grunting is enough to make the likes of Larry Flynt blush and send Linda Lovelace to a convent (behind a door of any color).

Admittedly, this is an annual bacchanalian ritual as necessary to squirrels as perhaps the Times Square Ball Drop is to some humans. But even this kind of ball action might have rendered the late Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark speechless.

Remember, dearest rodents: Yes, this is a time of renewal. But the watchwords of the new year have usually been: NEW YEAR, NEW SQUIRREL.

Translated loosely, that means: BE a new squirrel. Not necessarily MAKE a new squirrel.

29 December 2013

Squirrels, a secret weapon no more

For those of us who know the inner workings of squirrels - and yes, there are more than a few of us out there - it should be no surprise that one day this headline would appear in the news:

Police: Woman stabbed man with ceramic squirrel

This version of the North Charleson, S.C., domestic dispute, allegedly aided and abetted by remarkable violence involving rodent statuary, appeared on the WCSC-TV website, as well as on a San Francisco-based news website, and locales even further afield. The world is now nonplussed by what personal harm can come from the possession of an otherwise unassuming rodent figurine.

It seems, friends, the secret is out: Squirrels are, indeed, lethal weapons. In fact, now it is only a matter of time before the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms will require squirrels to register their incisors, claws and other body parts. They will be heavily taxed for possessing them and then will have to cough up the acorns annually for renewing the annual permits. Even their bushy tail, by no stretch of the imagination, might qualify as "camouflage" - another tool of battle - falling under the same weaponry regulations, particularly in times of war.

In this one case, the battlefield was confined to the couple's South Carolina home where, according to police quoted in the local news report, the wife, upon discovering her husband had failed to bring home beer on his shopping trip, "hit the victim over the head with a ceramic squirrel, and stabbed him in the inventory of Bud Light and had sent her husband out in search of a few refills. What role the squirrel had in all this remains for the Grand Jury to determine).

Although no live squirrels were implicated as accessories, wild woodland creatures will nonetheless be shocked to learn of the federal licensing process that may take effect, in a hastily drafted emergency resolution, on Jan. 1, 2014. Law-abiding citizens of the forest and the suburbs who have been squirrelling away their larder for the long winter may now find their nut stash depleted by hefty permit fees. And since this declaration comes at the start of breeding season in some parts of the country, it may also put a cork in some libidos, since squirrels will likely no longer be able to afford litters of 5 or 6. (Admittedly, the babies would be issued "learner's permits" since claws and teeth do not emerge until a few weeks after birth. But clearly the cost of raising a litter in this country will now rise exponentially, forcing some squirrels to rely even more on public handouts).

As for us humans, the broader question is this: What will become of those of us who not only know the inner workings of squirrels but also possess abundant likenesses of them in plush toy form, carved wood, fabric and yes, even that most lethal ceramic form? Will we collectors now be subjected to a massive direct-mail campaign to join the NRA (National Rodent Artillery)? Will our vehicles be forced to sport bumper stickers that say "I'm the NRA and I Vote?"

Squirrels haven't been so feared for their military savvy since the capture in 2007 on the Iranian border of 14 squirrels outfitted with espionage equipment. The squirrels were arrested and accused of spying for Western interests.

Consider this, friends. We may have to consider a stealth strategy from this point forward if we all want to keep our squirrelabilia collections and the squirrels want to keep their dignity and their families. We may all end up having to join the underground.

Toward that end, hope is barely more than a month away: On Groundhog Day, all eyes will be on the king of that underground. We may find a ringleader in Punxsutawney Phil. When it comes to the threat of being shadowed, Phil's the pro we need.

19 December 2013

Claus for Celebration

Do you believe in Santa?

We're not talking red-suited corpulent elf, the cold-weather one-day-a-year laborer who, during the rest of the year, is the biggest slacker on the planet. The nation has so many of those, anyway, it's impossible NOT to believe.

No, this Santa is diminutive, gray-suited and only a wee bit elfin. He's a nut-hoarding, tree-climbing, butt-shaking, tooth-chattering, foot-stomping Santa.

OK, so he's a squirrel. But he's still Santa.
And you'd better believe because this Santa's not coming to town: He's already been here a few days. And he shows no sign of letting up. Barely a week before Christmas, right after the northeast's first serious snowfall, Santa landed - first on the rooftop and then on the deck - with barely a clatter (and without any apologies whatsoever to Clement Clarke Moore).

Santa, who carried no luggage with him, wanted what was in our sack instead: Pecans, on this particular day. He showed up the next day wanting what was in our sack again: Almonds, this time, were the nuts du jour. There was no red cap on his head, but below his chin, and just above his chest, was the slightest suggestion of beard: White, fluffy and oh-so-jolly.
In fact, three days into his visits, I thought I could hear him, in fluent squirrel, singing this carol: "Silent nut, holy nut, all is calm, fill my gut."

Fortunately, Santa stayed away from our chimney and fireplace. There is an animal cap up there anyway, so it's Santa-proofed for Santas of every size, shape and species. Besides, chestnuts roasting on an open fire didn't fit his agenda.
Not all squirrels resemble Santa - this is a first for us. And it is something of a Christmas miracle. Whether whether Santa is here for the 12 days of Christmas and into the New Year, or just sticking around for the annual winter breeding season remains is a mystery. But if he is just here to deliver a different kind of Christmas present - in the form of baby squirrels to our resident females - I sure hope Mrs. Claus doesn't find out: Too much ho-ho-ho'ing around, and there's likely to be tough sledding ahead for Santa.

Now dash away, dash away, dash away home - at least until tomorrow.

30 October 2013

Paying the acorn forward

Starbucks, the coffee giant often criticized for the twin sins of presenting jet fuel under the guise of java - and then pricing it like jet fuel anyway - can be proud that it struts some Squirrel Spirit.

That's right: Starbucks is channeling its inner rodent. Something positively bushytailed, and unquestionably bright-eyed, has been happening at baristas' drive-through windows around the region - perhaps the country: Motorists are pulling up to take delivery of their orders and discovering that the previous driver has already paid their tab. Inspired to reciprocity, these drivers are, in turn, extending the same courtesy to the car in line behind them.

They are paying it forward by paying it backward.

Starbucks customers are simply discovering the selfless gesture that squirrels have engaged in for millenia: If you bury a small acorn and then walk away, it will still have been a worthwhile effort, because someone is bound to come along, dig it up and enjoy it. (Smartypants that they are, squirrels are also wise to the fact that it is easier to unearth a well-buried seed of an oak tree than to try and excavate a Mocha Frappuccino Grande decked in whipped cream. With all that dirt flying, there's always the risk of ending up with too much ground in one's grounds.)

Think of this Starbucks phenomenon, then, as humans learning to Pay the Acorn Forward; the hazelnut here may be the flavor of a hand-crafted, blended Frappuccino beverage in a tall glass instead but what's going on here still constitutes the seed of a grand idea. Though squirrels rarely enjoy a reputation for altruistic acts, and even less of a reputation for being baristas with a social conscience, the fact remains that most nuts buried by one squirrel have a pretty decent chance of being consumed by another. Or, if left untouched for an extended period of time, those nuts producing an even greater gift to the world: a forest!

Who says squirrels don't have a giving spirit?

So let the Starbucks customers continue to dig down deep - into their pockets as well as their hearts - and unearth the kernel of kindness, Squirrel Style. It seems the idea isn't nuts, after all.

15 October 2013

No shutdown of their appetites

Disgusted with a government shutdown that’s gone well into its second week, the squirrels of Washington, D.C., are taking the country back, one tomato at a time.

Stubborn, indolent Democrats and Republicans who populate Congress have shown very little fruits for their equally paltry labors but a lively bipartisan bunch of eastern grays has been enjoying the best fruits of all – the Presidential tomatoes – straight off the Pennsylvania Avenue vine.

And it's all occurred while federally funded gardeners are furloughed, reaping only the worst of a bumper crop of shame. Since the start of the shutdown earlier this month, no one has been paid to clean up here, so Washington, D.C.’s squirrels, ever the patriots, have stepped up to the plate. And cleaned that plate well.

Everywhere there are tell-tale toothmarks in the Presidential peppers. In the White House garden, “squash” is no longer a crop but an action verb enacted by brazen bushytails. And as the nation’s debt crisis threatens to mushroom, chanterelles and portobellos are having their caps raised, again and again.

And all the while, Congress sits and vegetates.

A greater crisis looms, America, and it is a direct result of this horticultural coup d’etat: Consider the now-looming threat of squirrel obesity facing our nation as this Harvest Without End continues, and will continue ad infinitum, until Congress takes some action to end it along with the shutdown.

Otherwise, we shall picture soon a nation of squirrels with all the health issues concomitant with binge-eating and obesity, though not a single one of them even qualifies to receive treatment under Obamacare.

The squirrels will not stop until they press some gnawing sense of reality into our lawmakers. We can be sure of it. Because once the White House garden is finally devoid of anything but remnants of the fertilizer so pervasive throughout our nation's capital, the squirrels will discover they are, sadly, no different from most American citizens:

Completely fed up.