Monday, September 3, 2007

The squirrel whisperer © by adrian Episode one: Lurch

I can't think of any easy way to tell you this, I've twisted it about in my mind for days trying to find the words that could even come close to explaining it. I can think of nothing to prepare you. You've heard the expression "horse whisperer", there was a book, followed by a movie. Well, this is so much worse. Here it is then, do with it as you will.

I am a squirrel whisperer!

Really, everything is fine, I've taken my meds today, no need to worry, it's simply not that big a deal. It just happens that's what I am. Lord knows, I didn't choose this, it's just been there all my life. I found this out when I was very young. The discovery was sort of like when you're trying to explain something to someone who doesn't speak your language, there is always much gesturing and carrying on, and all of a sudden everybody "gets it". There are smiles all around, sometimes even laughter, and everybody feels good... same thing, just like that, that's exactly how it happened.

Listen to this...

I am known in the squirrel population as Big Grey, I have occasionally heard them refer to me behind muffled snickers as Big Grey Two Legs, I assure you, squirrels are not without humour.

I have lived with three different squirrels in my lifetime. If you don't understand, you may think I mean three squirrels have lived with me. You are confused, if there are squirrels in your house, apartment, or life, you live with them, not the other way round. I don't jump from branch to branch, but even lately I have spent time up ladders in trees, feeding and talking to a few of them.

This story is about Lurch. I did not live with Lurch, but we eventually became unbelievable friends.

I was cutting some wood in the backyard when I saw my bride Linda coming down the driveway. She was in obvious distress and crying. Before I could ask, she cried out, "It's Todd, he's been hit by a car." Todd was the name we had given one of the local young grey squirrels that frequent our back porch for peanut handouts. "He's lying in the middle of the road." she said. I comforted her as best I could, got some gloves and a bag and suggested we should pick him up and bury him.

We went down the block to where he lay, and I realized as we got closer it wasn't Todd, but an older grey squirrel we had never seen before. His back end had been crushed and he was still alive. I put on the gloves, went over, picked him up and put him in the bag, we then walked home with him. I didn't look at him closely until we got home. He was a mess. Not only his back, but his jaw was also damaged. My original thought was to finish him off to stop him from suffering more. In theory, that's always a good plan, but much harder to do in actual practice. However, he didn't seem to be in actual pain, just numb and in shock.

I ended up wrapping him in blankets, putting him in a container and leaving him in our garden shed for the night. It was early November, still warm, so the weather was not a factor. He was only able to lie on his side, and I went out to him frequently in the night, petted him and fed him bits of liquid food from an eyedropper. Eventually I went to bed, assuming that in the morning I would find him dead and that would be the end of it.

Next morning he was alert and still very much alive, but still only able to lie on his side.

In Toronto, and many other cities, we have an amazing volunteer animal rescue hospital that will take in injured wild animals and care for them. I arranged to bring this squirrel there. When we arrived, there were many questions about where he was found etc., because if an animal recovers they like to release them near where they originally lived. They also offered to call me and let me know if he didn't make it if I wanted, I didn't, and was done with it.

In late December during a snow storm, I looked out in the backyard and saw an old grey squirrel stumbling across my porch. I grabbed some peanuts, slipped on a jacket and went out. I crouched down to see if he would take a peanut and he looked at me for a moment and then staggered over, crawled up my pant leg and snuggled into my lap for protection from the storm. I could see that most of the fur on his back and belly had been shaved off, and what seemed to be stitches ran down his back. This squirrel looked as if he had just come back from a surgical procedure. He stayed in my lap about ten minutes, eating and warming up and then crawled off and went out into the storm.

Linda tried to convince me this had to be the same squirrel we had taken to the hospital, but I refused to believe it. The chance that squirrel had even lived was beyond possibility as far as I was concerned. I could not offer any reasonable explanation for this experience, but St. Francis of the elders didn’t fit my profile either. The next five days were bitterly cold, and we assumed a squirrel with little fur wouldn't have much chance of survival.

I built a squirrel house about twenty feet up a tree in my backyard a few years ago in an as yet unwritten story. I'm in my yard two weeks after I fed the squirrel on the porch, and see an old weathered squirrel looking out the doorway of that house. As soon as he sees me he starts to come out the opening and promptly falls to the ground, landing in a snow bank. He gets up, staggers over to me, and crawls onto my lap. Linda brings us some walnuts and I feed them to him. Twice the next day when I go outside he comes to the edge of the squirrel house doorway, falls to the ground, staggers over to me, and gets on my lap.

It's pretty obvious by now that the squirrel house needs renovation, and a piece of wood is salvaged from a corner of the yard so I can add a porch for him to better navigate. I've decided that if I screw a flat piece of wood to the bottom of the house that will jut out six inches or so in front, he will have a ledge to help him get oriented when he tries to leave it.

Even though it's snowing, I set a ladder against the tree and start up with tools and wood at the ready.

I get up to the house and he sticks his face out it's door and starts watching what I'm doing. He looks at me incredulously, almost as if he can't believe it took me so long to figure out what he needed. He is six inches from my face, staring at me as I start to screw this board onto the bottom of the house he’s sitting in.

This is really weird, even for a nutbar like me. I haven't taken LSD in years, I'm weeks away from receiving my first Old Age Pension check. I'm twenty feet up a tree in a snowstorm, casually explaining to a wild squirrel what I'm doing, while he's watching me like he's the family pet. I wonder if he will offer to hold my screwdriver for me. While this is going on, from inside the house, I can hear another squirrel that I didn't know was there, squawking. Scolding him, or us. In my head I hear Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane fame singing, "Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call." I'm a star in my own Alice in Wonderland movie.

When I finish and return to the ground, I comment to Linda, "I wonder how the neighbours feel about the harmless, crazy long hair down the street now."

The porch doesn't help much. He now comes out on the porch, but because his hind quarters are still not in great shape, his balance is dreadful. Every time he tries to sit up or scratch, he falls over and to the ground. I just keep shoveling as much snow as I can around the base of the tree to help break his fall. Linda and I have decided that in view of his constant staggering and falling, we will name him Lurch. We also decide it will be emotionally easier on us to refer to his falls as jumping, instead of falling, as in "Oh look, Lurch just jumped out of the tree again."

I have by now finally conceded this is indeed the squirrel that had been run over a few months ago. The body shaving has obviously been done professionally, and there are definite stitches left over from some delicate operation he must have been given. His complete disinterest that I am a different species also suggests that he has gotten very used to dealing with people in his two months of rehabilitation.

As the Winter went on he got progressively better at navigating the porch, he still jumped, but not as much, his upper body was very strong and he developed an incredible ability to grab on the edge of the porch when he slipped, and pull himself back up. It was not uncommon to look out and see him dangling from the edge, he would look like an athlete doing his pull-up exercises as he dragged himself back to the safety of the flat surface. He still had a lot of trouble climbing back up the tree, so I built what we referred to as a wheelchair ramp for him that went from the bushes to the tree, and he started using that with great success.

Most mornings I would go out and sit on the steps of our back porch and he would come out of the house and down the tree to visit. I would feed him, and he would lean against me for balance as he ate. Sometime he would stay a bit when finished eating and I would pet him and rub his ears. Almost every afternoon at about three o'clock we would repeat the same dance.

In the spring his fur began to grow back. He still staggered about and fell over constantly but he started to look like a normal squirrel again. We found out that the other squirrel he had in the house with him was a female, and when he found out he quickly got her pregnant. He stayed around and constantly visited with me until May. As the weather started warming, whenever I was on the porch he would come down, find a sunny spot and just lie out with me for long stretches of time as I sat reading. I would talk to him, and sometimes he would come over to be petted and at others, he would just lie there and ignore me. He seemed to just hang around for the companionship. I never knew if he thought he was keeping me company or if I was his company.

Summer arrived, and we simply didn't see him anymore.

Other squirrels moved in and out of the squirrel house during the following seasons. It had been eleven months since I last saw Lurch, and one day I looked out and saw a familiar face looking out the squirrel house doorway. I thought, no way, not possible, and then he came out. He sat for a moment, started to scratch, fell over the side and grabbed on to the edge and pulled himself up. Lurch had moved back into the house! This time, he was very skittish, and nervous, but after about four days we reacquainted ourselves and returned to back porch feedings complete with petting and ear scratching.

During this stay he reconnected with the squirrel he previously lived in the house with, they mated again, and she produced another fine litter.

Lurch certainly brought a lot of pleasure to Linda and me (yes, worry too). He also helped remind me of the squirrel named Peanuts I lived with for a year and a half when I was eleven and twelve years old. He would curl up at my neck and sleep in bed with me every night.

The picture I use in my profile is of Lurch. That picture was made two years after he had his accident and we first met him. If you click on it, you will see a larger image. Look at the joy and glee in his face, listen, and you will almost hear him laughing.