Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Squirrel Whisperer © by adrian Episode two: Peanuts

I get on the subway car, sit down and put my hand into my jacket pocket. Just another kid, really. I’m almost thirteen years old and no one has even noticed me come into the car. Not yet, anyway. I reach further into my pocket and scoop my hand underneath the warm little fur ball I find there. I pull it out of my pocket and the ball of fur I’m now holding in my hand begins to stir. The little grey squirrel I’ve named Peanuts, who accompanies me almost everywhere, drowsily looks up at me and yawns.

We met a year and a half ago, and have been inseparable ever since.

I'm playing on my porch one day in early Spring, and across the street from me I hear a commotion and know something is definitely wrong in the local animal kingdom. Just down the street I locate the cause of the ruckus.

Three baby squirrels are huddled together in the corner of a porch roof, and a large grey squirrel with huge teats is fighting with a fourth baby squirrel. She's chasing him off the roof, squawking and being very aggressive towards him. He crawls back up, wailing all the while, and she attacks him again. It seems that she's trying to kill him.

If you have read my story titled, "My Mother, the Sister © by adrian", you will understand how easy it was for me to immediately identify with this baby squirrel. What I saw happening was not a mystery to me. This squirrel's mother, for whatever reason, did not want the little fellow around anymore. The others were obviously not being threatened by her right now, this was exclusively between him and her, and the others knew it. After his fourth time of being chased and thrown from the roof by his mother, I intervened. I went over and hesitantly picked him up off the ground. I had no idea if he would bite me, or if the mother would attack me now. She was in a hysterical rage, and I realized very unpredictable. Well, the mother instantly stopped squawking, calmly walked over to the remaining litter, called at them, and they followed her around the corner of the roof, and out of sight. The little guy just stared at me. I didn't know if he was frightened or not, but at the time I felt he definitely knew that whatever was going to happen, was going to be a hell of a lot better than what had just happened.

I decided immediately that he would be my pet, we would be motherless buddies together. From this moment on, it was going to be him and me behind the tree. I would teach him to be strong, and he would teach me the squirrels' secret ways. He would show me the proper way to bury and hoard, so that everywhere we went all we would need to do is scratch the ground and there would be the possibility of discovering buried treasure under our feet. We would fly from tree to tree together, and take on the world...

Then I remembered I was late for dinner.

This realization presented itself rather urgently, because with that thought, I remembered that I also had a set of parents. I knew it would be pretty hard to sneak to the dinner table without someone noticing this new addition, and that they were probably going to play a figural role in any possibility of my being able to keep and care for this guy. There was something else I couldn't quite put my finger on, and then it dawned on me. I already had a pet. I was currently responsible for a five year old beagle dog named Towser whose full time hobby, (I'm sure he thought of it as a vocation,) was chasing squirrels.

I figured through stealth, cajoling, or promising to put out the coal furnace ashes for a month next winter, I might be able to sway the parents. I did, however, have some misgiving about my ability to convince Towser that this squirrel was not to be chased, and would be living in the house, just like him. I felt that no matter how upbeat and positively I tried to explain that to him, it was going to be a tough sell. I foresaw that I had a long night ahead of me.

As soon as I entered the house, Towser knew my secret. He ran towards me and jumped up, gaily barking. He knew I had brought him a treat that was better than anything I had ever given him before. Finally, he would have his very own squirrel to maul. He knew the other dogs on the block would be so envious of him.

I held my new ward above my head and called for someone to help pull Towser off me. One of my sisters rushed to my aid and pulled Towser back. The hallway we were in quickly filled, because added to this mix of dog, sister, squirrel and me, the parents rushed into the hallway to see what the commotion was. Their hysterical yelling along with the barking of the dog was quite a combination. I had single handedly pulled off the biggest family shit disturb of this month, and I wondered if the little fellow I was still holding above my head was reconsidering his options.

It didn't come about easily, but eventually the parents forgo their determined resistance and agree to let me try to look after him. We acknowledge that Towser will be a huge disadvantage to the squirrels well being, but I convince them I will be able to train him to look the other way when the squirrel is around.

I am the youngest in the family, but because I am a boy and must be kept away from my three older sisters as much as possible in order to protect my morals, I have always had my own bedroom. It's negotiated that as long as I keep my bedroom door closed whenever I'm at school or not at home, the squirrel can live in my room with me until he is old enough to fend for himself and be set free.

I name my new companion Peanuts.

Checking at the library determines that Peanuts is probably between six to eight weeks old. He did have his fur, but not a full coat yet. He still didn't know what to do with solid food, (nuts or whatever,) so I mostly fed him from an eyedropper or gave him mashed up food or peanut butter I would spread on the end of my finger. He would lick it off, or gently nibble my finger to get at it.

I got a huge box and placed tree branches, bits of cloth and hamster wood shavings in it so that he would have a room of his own. After a few days he dismissed the idea of his own area and decided to always get on the bed with me whenever I was in my room. I would put him in his box at night when it was time for lights out, but in a few minutes I would feel him crawling up the side of the bed and then he would snuggle up to me. He quickly got into the habit of curling up at my neck and sleeping in bed with me every night.

After a few weeks, we started to stumble through a form of semi satisfactory communication. Peanuts would make little grunting or what sounded like chirping noises when he wanted or needed any attention, and he started to come to me when I called him. Towser, of course was not amused by any of this. Amazingly though, Towser did quickly soften to Peanut's presence. Sometimes when Towser would go and lie down on his doggie bed Peanuts would march over to him and curl up on Towser's stomach and go to sleep. If Towser had ever been able to learn how to use a can opener, so that he could feed himself, I'm sure he would never have put up with such indignity. Peanuts simply became part of the household.

I soon started to take Peanuts outside to the backyard. He was still too young to look after himself, but I wanted him to at least have a sense of the outdoors. I never had any intention of keeping him permanently as an indoor pet, and felt he would go free as soon as he was more mature. I always assumed that when he was free to roam, he would drop by for visits on occasion if he felt like it.

About a month after I started living with him, he had his first attack. I realized he was sick, and at the time, I thought he was dying. Perhaps this explained why his mother had been trying to get rid of him.

Some squirrels have an illness with symptoms that seem to be similar to epilepsy. They occasionally have seizures where they go completely rigid and/or tremble, and stay in that state for a few minutes whenever this occurs. Peanuts was afflicted with this illness.

The Secord Animal Clinic was near Ramsden Park on Yonge Street in Toronto, close to where I lived. The doctor's name was Alan Secord, and over time I became very indebted to him. I took Peanuts there right after his first attack. Naturally I was scared and had no idea what was wrong with him. Because I was eleven years old, I had no money. When I explained that to Dr. Alan, as he became known to me, he said it didn't matter, and he would do what he could to help. I don't remember if he gave Peanuts any medication, but he certainly gave me hope that Peanuts was generally healthy, except for this flaw. During the year and a half that Peanuts and I were together, he had about six more seizures, and Dr. Alan ministered to him without ever charging me a penny.

Back on the home front, on one of our ventures in the back yard, his mother came into the yard. Of course, I had no idea what to expect (that seems to be a constant theme in my life, even back then).

If you don't know much about squirrels, you might find it hard to believe they are individually identifiable, but they definitely are. In a city environment as they run frantically about, that fact might be hard to accept, but they all do have their very own discernable personality traits. Apart from looks they definitely interact with the world as individuals. The way they forage, approach, squawk or even flick their tail, makes them easy to identify.

I offered his mother a nut and she came closer to us. She totally ignored Peanuts, and he ignored her. Of course I was relieved. When I first saw her I thought she would either attack him again, or he would go off with her. Over the next few months, whenever she came by, I would stand in the middle of the yard with Peanuts on my shoulder, and I trained her to jump from the fence to my other shoulder to get a treat. She would sit there and eat it and then the two of them would run up and down my back and around my torso and sort of play with each other. In those interludes, I was their scratching post and tree trunk.

At various times during the next year and a half I would leave Peanuts alone in the yard in the belief that he was ready to go out on his own. He would run and play in the trees, sometimes even with his mother and then when he had enough, he would come to the back door and lie down or just sit there until I let him in. He would scamper in, and run past me up to our room. Towser would watch, and I'm sure he wondered how everything could have gone so wrong in his life.

If I took him to the park and put him down, he would follow along, just like we were going for a walk together. When he got tired, he would squawk and I would wait for him to jump up on my leg and then I would pick him up and put him in my jacket pocket where he would curl up and go to sleep.

Back in the Subway car, I put Peanuts on the window sill behind us and he romps back and forth while a crowd gathers around. Not surprisingly, people are excited, amazed, and have many questions. When we arrive near our stop I call him to come to me and pick him up and slip him back in my pocket. He will quickly nod off to sleep, and I leave the car full of childhood feelings of importance.

About a year and a half after I rescued him, Peanuts had a final seizure and died. I was devastated, but I had always known that sooner or later he would be gone. It's the price you have to pay if you befriend animals from the wild. We had a wondrous and magical time together, and I learned almost all the secrets of the squirrels from him. Little did I know then that I would need to call on those secrets later on as other squirrels passed through my life.