Something in the tall grass had Rudy’s full attention. He was locked on point like a bird dog for a few seconds before springing into the air with that decidedly canine pounce – arched back and front paws extended – so typical of coyotes and foxes when they’re hunting rodents. I should clarify that Rudy is my dog. We were playing catch in the front yard, and he’d been glancing toward the weedy overgrown edge of the lawn until that something in the grass was just too irresistible.
Rudy reacts like this to everything from grasshoppers to lizards. Since it was a cool and windy October afternoon, I suspected the grasshoppers were sluggish and lizards weren’t likely out and about so my first thought was mouse. But then I got a look at the creature as it bounded through the grass and climbed a hickory sapling. It was a young gray squirrel. Rudy pursued and I ran to the sapling yelling “stop” and “no” to which Rudy paid no attention. He reached the sapling before I did, but the squirrel was just out of his reach. Good for the squirrel. Rudy’s not a deliberate killer, but every day I marvel that he hasn’t wallowed our cat to death yet with his rough play.
I approached the baby squirrel with some apprehension. Gray squirrels are feisty, and all members of Sciuridae — Sciuridae is the taxonomic name for the squirrel family of rodents — come equipped with chisel-like teeth that can whittle through a hickory nut hull in short time. Human fingers are no match for those teeth, and I knew this from personal experiences I’ll likely share in some future column. But the squirrel made no effort to escape or bite as I grasped it behind the head then cradled it in my palm. It was shivering from fear and the chilly wind. Scanning the trees revealed no leafy nest and no hollow den holes so I did the only thing I knew to do, the only thing that felt right, and brought it into the warm house.
I won’t go into details about how we saved the squirrel, but within a few days we had a tiny bushytail bounding through the house and riding on our shoulders. We didn’t have a cage so I housed the squirrel in a wire live-trap. Coupled with frequent adventures in our living room, this was fine for a couple of weeks then we borrowed a rabbit cage from some friends. I decorated the squirrel’s new home with a few branches and an old birdhouse for a den. The cage looked like everything a squirrel would need to feel at home. Our original plan was to keep the squirrel inside our home through the winter. It seemed like the humane thing to do. A warm cage, a cozy den, fresh cracked hickory nuts and pecans. Squirrel heaven, right?
One week in the new cage and the squirrel was showing signs of a psychotic breakdown. She — by now we figured out it was a she — climbed all over the cage at a frenetic pace during most daylight hours. She chewed on the wire, she tested openings between wires, and when she wasn’t doing all that she was in her den staring, in what looked like a catatonic state, out the sliding glass door at our wooded backyard. Sure, we still let her out in the house from time to time, but she wanted more. She wanted to be a squirrel. Why wasn’t she content with a warm cage, fresh water and pecans delivered to her door? Because she wanted to be a squirrel.
There’s a lesson in this little story. A lot of lessons in fact. A shallow lesson about anthropomorphism — squirrels aren’t fuzzy little humans — and deeper lessons as well. Lessons about awareness and focus. Lessons about intentions and motives. Lessons about truth. Lessons about the meaning of life. But I’ll let you figure out on your own if any apply to you. I’ve got my hands full with those that apply to me.
The squirrel is doing fine. We nailed her birdhouse den to a tree in the backyard, but she found better shelter in our shed within a few days. I watched her packing a mouthful of leaves up the post and into the rafters again and again one afternoon. She can’t crack a hickory nut yet so I crack a few for her every morning and she takes them from my hand with a suspicious look and scurries to the nearest branch to eat. She made it through the coldest night of this young winter. She’s survived the foxes and red-shouldered hawks that pass through and over our yard. Still, the odds are against her seeing April’s dewy mornings. She doesn’t think about April mornings, though. April mornings aren’t even an abstract thought in her head. There is only now, there is only this moment, and it’s the most important moment of her life.
We read books, we pay for education, and we search high and low for wisdom when wisdom is all around us. Sometimes it even falls from a tree.
*The squirrel survived in our backyard for two years, and even raised at least two litters of kittens before she died. She was one of my greatest teachers.