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Tales from the Urban Forest

by Bill McGaughey

One day I received a frantic call from a tenant. There was a rat or something in her basement. I went over there to investigate. A baby squirrel was sitting on the concrete floor of the basement. Fearing that the squirrel would bite me and possibly had rabies, I swept it into a plastic bag with a broom and then carried the bundle back to my home to dispose of it.

The temperatures were below freezing. I thought that the squirrel would die if I simply left it outside. It seemed not to be in good health. Instead, I put the bag at the bottom of a stairwell leading up to the second floor of a duplex where I live. I put a dab of peanut butter in the bag.

On the next morning, I discovered that the bag was empty. The peanut butter appeared untouched. The baby squirrel had climbed the staircase and was now lodged behind a radiator at the top of the stairs. The radiator was still hot.

Over the next few days, the squirrel continued to hang around the radiator. Sometimes it stood on a cloth cover atop the radiator. Sometimes, especially when it was frightened, it burrowed behind the radiator. I put out a small dish filled with water and placed a few peanuts in the water. The squirrel ate the peanuts and drank some of the water.

I kept the doors shut between the stairwell and the two apartments on either side because I thought it would be difficult to catch the squirrel if it escaped to those units. Furthermore, a dog lived in one of those units who specialized in chasing squirrels when I took him out for a walk each day. So my squirrel continued to live near the radiator. Occasionally it would return to the bottom of the stairs.

Whenever I appeared, the squirrel would hide behind the radiator. Trying to make friendly contact, I put my hand on the floor. Eventually the squirrel came out toward the dish filled with water. Then it went over to my hand and started nibbling on my fingers. I could tell that it had sharp teeth. When the squirrel bit down on the tip of my finger, there was a sensation of pain. It was safer and more comfortable to let it nibble on the side of my hand.

This routine continued for several weeks. I continued to leave a dish with water and food. The squirrel would alternatively hide behind the radiator and approach my hand on the floor. I realized that if was safe to let the squirrel bite my finger; no blood had been drawn yet. So the baby squirrel and I slowly got used to each other.

I was becoming uneasy about the situation. The longer the squirrel lived in my stairwell, the less fit it would become to live in the wild. So I lured it on to a piece of wood and carried the wood outside to the porch. I left the wood and the squirrel out on the porch for several hours.

At one point the dog started to bark. When I opened the front door, I found the squirrel huddling between it and the screen door, obviously wanting to come back in. On subsequent visits to the outside porch, it stayed in a crawl space inside the railing at the far end. Maybe that was OK.

So I had acquired a kind of house pet. How would this work in the long term? Between owning a dog and a squirrel, I had certain responsibilities. The arrangement for the squirrel to live in the stairwell would not be practical after my wife returned from a lengthy trip. She would want the doors open to the apartments adjoining the stairwell. Occasionally, I would open the door to the stairwell and find the squirrel waiting at the door for an opportunity to dart into my living quarters. That could not be permitted.

A friend suggested that I make a wooden box that could be left on the porch for the squirrel to make its home. I could leave food near the box. I should start calling the squirrel by name so it would recognize me as its owner. So I called the squirrel “Sammy”. I’m not sure it got that lesson but it did continue to take peanuts from me. It started climbing up my arm and nibbling on my shirt.

The squirrel became a hit with some small children who came to the house. They saw him running around the porch. We fed the squirrel a potato chip; he stood up on his hind legs and ate it. Once, when he saw the children, the squirrel ran toward them. They started to scream. So I had to take the squirrel back to the sofa on the porch with the frightened but delighted children looking at him from a distance.

My wife came home from her trip. She thought the squirrel was cute and agreed it might make a nice house pet. However, as I had suspected, she wanted to be able to move freely between the apartment units without fear that the squirrel would enter those places.

By mistake, my wife did once leave the door open to our apartment and, fulfilling my fears, the squirrel entered forbidden territory. Immediately the dog barked and chased the squirrel around a hallway near the bathroom. When I appeared, it jumped up on my arm. I found that I could actually grab and carry it without being bitten. So I put the squirrel back in the stairwell and closed the door.

My wife proposed, as a long-term solution, that we keep the squirrel on a small porch near our bedroom. There were lots of boxes, tools, and other junk on that porch. But it was out of the way of our path between the apartment units and the front door. The squirrel could live there without inconveniencing anyone.

So, on the evening between April 30th and May 1st, I carried the squirrel in my hand and deposited him on top of a table along with a dish of water. “Sammy” was more interested in running up my arm and sitting on my shoulder. I brushed him off and back to the table top and then left the room.

After an hour or two, I returned to the porch anxious to see how Sammy had adapted to his new environment. He was nowhere to be seen. The water was untouched. Again, on the morning of May 1st, I returned to the porch. There was still no sign of Sammy. I checked to see if there were any windows opened. I looked behind the boxes and other junk. But I did leave some food out in case Sammy reappeared.

It was a smart move. The next time I entered the porch, Sammy was sitting on top of some belongings on a metal rack. He let me pick him up in my hand.

I took Sammy out to the downstairs porch for his daily exposure to the outdoors. First, Sammy and I played on the sofa. I would pet his head and back and tickle his belly. Sammy would jump up and down, first fleeing the sofa and then climbing back for another round. He was also licking my hand, probably for the salt content. In an interlude, while I was resting, a man walking by on the sidewalk shouted at me in alarm, “Hey, there’s a squirrel near your head.” I just smiled.

It was time for my wife and I to do several errands near Broadway. We needed to fill up on gas, visit the bank, and buy groceries at Cub Foods. I left the sofa and walked down to the car parked on the street to join my wife. Sammy followed me to the car. I picked him up and put him back on the porch. But again he followed me. In fact, as I was walking over to the driver’s side of the car, Sammy was on the street under the front wheels.

There was only one thing to do to avoid running him over: let Sammy come into the car with us. So that’s what we did. I drove off to the gas station and other places with my wife sitting next to me and Sammy scrambling around the car from place to place. He was often down at our feet but then would climb over our shoulders or laps. Several times he climbed up on the steering wheel and stood there looking back at me.

The trick was to keep Sammy in the car while we did our errands - remember, squirrels are quick. I kept a wary eye on Sammy before slamming the door. I think that frightened him because he spent more time under the seat. We put our bags of groceries in the trunk to avoid opening and closing the car door unnecessarily.

When we returned home, my wife and I took the groceries out of the trunk and prepared to carry them upstairs. I reached under the seat to grab Sammy. While carrying several bags of groceries, I also carried Sammy over to the front lawn and released him there.

That’s the last I saw of the squirrel. I think he headed back to the car; but later, when I looked under the car, he was nowhere to be seen. He was also not on the porch. He did not respond when I repeatedly called his name. There were no signs of him anywhere in the immediate neighborhood; but, thankfully, no baby squirrels appear to have been run over by cars on nearby streets.

As I write this narrative, I still haven’t seen Sammy. But there’s one hopeful sign: The peanuts that I put in a dish on the outdoors porch are gone.

 

Postscript: The events described above happened in the spring of 2008. I never saw Sammy again. Now it is the fall of 2009. I have recently been hearing strange tales of a squirrel in the neighborhood that is jumping into people's cars when the doors open. This squirrel was also caught trying to enter my house. Could it be my old friend, Sammy?

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