I HAVE CATS. They don't hunt. When I heard something screech at Valentine, and saw her slink-trot toward the tree, it didn't faze me. The backyard wildlife scolds her all the time, and she's never killed anything more impressive than a moth. But a couple minutes later I heard the same sound, and saw her bat something on the ground.
It was a baby gray squirrel, probably two or three weeks old—past the pinky stage but with its eyes still closed and only a whiff of fur. It had fallen from a 100-foot Doug Fir, but it was alive. My husband picked it up, and it was uninjured. It could hang its entire body off his thumb with the grip of one paw.
Of all the helpless living things that might present themselves on your lawn, baby squirrels are pretty high on the list of probability. In Portland though, the abundant Eastern Gray squirrels are an invasive species, which means that nobody, officially, will help them. It was after hours, so I called DoveLewis, who informed me that they'd be legally mandated to euthanize if I brought it in. I could try the Audobon Society, they said, but they were beholden to the same laws. DoveLewis suggested putting it back in the tree, because if the baby is healthy—if it fell out and wasn't pushed out—the mother might retrieve it. So we fashioned a nest out of a T-shirt, and set it on the only branch that was low enough to reach.
There are a lot of things I would do differently if this ever happens again, and going to bed with her still out there is one of them. But let's back up a bit. Measures to protect native species are taken with good reason, and I generally support those practices even when it's at the expense of other animals, at least in an abstract way. And while I like squirrels and other prey animals a lot, I like raptors and raccoons and other creatures that might like to eat a baby squirrel, too. If, say, a red-tailed hawk had swooped in, I'd call that legit. A little sad maybe, but Mother Nature: What are you gonna do?
It started to seem more complicated, though, when in the morning she was still there, still alive, tainted by human contact and T-shirts. It was the business end of a particularly shithouse-busy workweek. It was only 6:30 am, but we were running late. Squirrels are crepuscular, so the mom might still come, we decided, and we left again. We watched crows ransack the neighborhood as we drove away, and talked about how they'd get to her before a hawk did. (I have so much less sympathy for crows.)
Several hours later I was in a borrowed car, tearing ass back toward the house. I hadn't been able to concentrate, and had even cried a little imagining the squirrel dying in alternately lonely and violent ways. I felt dumb for not having taken her out of the tree that morning, and though I was sure it was too late by now, I had to check. Even if she was doomed, having been without mother's milk for so long and out there like a sitting duck, at least I might be able to give her someplace comfortable to die in one piece.
I can't really explain this decision rationally. Harboring an invasive species is kinda wrong, but helping any orphaned animal is kinda right, too. It just didn't sit well with me, ultimately, not to try. But when I found her still there, miraculously still alive, I wish I'd known more about what to do. If you should encounter the same thing, and decide you want to help, here are a few things I learned.
• If you're tempted to raise a baby squirrel, it's probably not a long-term commitment. Personally, I think this is a positive attribute in a "pet" that you never planned to get, and that can live a surprisingly long time—well into their 20s. DoveLewis, by law, wasn't even allowed to give me any tips on how to care for a non-native squirrel, but you can easily find information online as to how to care for one as it ages, including how to transition it back outside after just a few months. Or just wait, and it'll more than likely scamper off on its own. On YouTube you can even find videos of squirrels coming back to visit, like college kids on spring break, wrassling with the family cat for old times' sake. And think of all the ways having a pet squirrel would be cool, right up until it decides to bounce: It's illegal! It's unusual! Everyone will want to see it! It can ride on your shoulder or stow away in your pocket!
• If your squirrel is as young as mine, it's really easy to fail. If you find an older squirrel with fur and sight, you're at an advantage. If not, it'll be touch and go, and more maintenance than you might think—it can't be left alone for more than a couple of hours, for instance. Can you bring your orphaned baby squirrel to work? If the answer is no, maybe don't bother.
• Definitely try to give it back. The best chance for a squirrel baby's survival is with its mother. She has both the time and the biological imperative. However, if she doesn't claim it after a couple hours, it's time to gather some supplies and snap into action. You'll need Pedialyte, an eye-dropper, a heating pad, a container of some sort (a cat carrier is pretty ideal), blankets, cotton balls, and puppy milk replacement formula. There's some debate about what's best, but I used a raw goat's milk formula with added cultures that's designed for cats and dogs, which seemed somewhat acceptable to most of the squirrel rescue web sites. Just get what you can at your nearest pet store, but whatever you do, don't give it cow's milk.
• You have to hydrate it before you can feed it. Use the dropper to administer the Pedialyte, holding the squirrel upright. Go slowly so the squirrel doesn't aspirate the liquid. (You're definitely going too fast if you see bubbles coming out of its nose.) If the liquid gets into its lungs it will just die of pneumonia. Fight to get at least some of it in, but stop when it starts resisting, and repeat again every hour, at least until it pees.
• You have to help it pee. It won't just do that. After every dose of Pedialyte or feeding, dip your cotton in warm water and rub it in a gentle circular motion around the squirrel's butt and junk (you're trying to mimic what the mother does, which is lick it). Do that for about a minute. If nothing happens, just keep trying each time.
• It has to be kept warm. They mostly just sleep, and they need a heating pad with a thin layer of blanket on top, and then even more blankets for burrowing purposes. I happened to have the pelt of a squirrel someone gave me many years ago, which I used to layer over the heating pad. It seems macabre, but they really appreciate the comforting familiarity of the fur. Wildlife rescues use donated fur coats and collars for the same purpose, so if you have anything similar that you don't mind loaning to a wild animal, go ahead and add it to the bedding. A lot of heating pads switch off automatically after a couple hours, too, so keep an eye on that.
• Once the squirrel seems hydrated, and/or you've steadily been giving it Pedialyte for a few hours, introduce the formula, diluted with water. It has to be somewhat warm, and I found the easiest thing to do is use warm water to mix with the refrigerated milk, and then run the dropper under more warm water before feeding. Increase the proportion of milk in the mixture each time, and feed it every two hours.
• Seriously. Feed it every two hours, all through the night. Think about whether you're capable and willing to set an alarm at intervals, go through the process of mixing and feeding the formula, swirling the cotton, etc. because it fucking sucks.
If I'd known all of the above, I would have been dropping Pedialyte into my squirrel three hours after initially finding her. When I fished her out of the tree she'd been without attention for 15 hours. I did other things wrong, too, like try to give her undiluted formula before Pedialyte, but there wasn't time to research what I was doing until after I was already doing it. By the time I got on the right track, though, she seemed to improve. Almost exactly 24 hours after she'd fallen out of my tree she was powering down two full droppers of Pedialyte, her little tail flapping happily in the palm of my hand. A couple hours later, I got her to pee and poop, at which point I was like, "I got this."
I hadn't wanted to name her, but emboldened by her apparent vitality, I referred to her as "Polly Pocket"—once, just to try it. I dutifully set the alarm, and got up to feed her. She was curled in the fetal position and seemed more lethargic than she had been, but I got most of a dropper's worth into her and tucked her back in. When I got up for the second time, she was dead. Her body was still warm, though it was probably just from the heating pad. I was surprised, and more disappointed than I expected to be.
The next morning I wrapped her in a linen napkin and buried her under the tree before leaving for work. By this time I knew all the things I should have done differently, and even though I'd accomplished the baseline—she'd died peacefully, stretched out and warm with something in her stomach, not torn apart by crows—the failure stung. The silver lining, I guess, is that I know what I need to do if and when it happens again. And I really hope it never happens again.