179. Decatur Baby Squirrel
Helping a furry friend
By Danielle Komis Palmer
Mischeala Earp woke up every two hours to bottle feed her newborn baby.
She fed him Pedialyte so he didn't become dehydrated. She took him everywhere with her, even to Wal-Mart. Few people noticed the tiny bundle in her hands.
Now that her baby is older, he darts around her Decatur home, stopping only to munch on banana chips or to sniff something. His beady eyes and fuzzy ears make for a face that perhaps only his surrogate mother can love.
That is, unless you love squirrels.
Nineteen-year-old Earp took in the orphaned baby squirrel in September after her mother-in-law found it in her yard. Earp called the North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators hotline, and was told she could continue to raise the squirrel as long as she got a permit. They advised her on how to raise the baby and what to feed it.
While she's never raised a wild animal before, Earp was happy to take on the challenge.
"I'm big on animals," she said. "I always wanted to be a veterinarian but it never really worked out."
Plus, it was heartbreaking when she first saw the young, tiny squirrel that she wrapped in a T-shirt and placed in a basket.
"He was near dead," she said. "He was not moving. He was so pale." She named him Raider because he "raided" her time and her life.
"I couldn't leave the house for more than two hours," she said. "I couldn't go shopping or anything for the first three weeks."
"She even bought him groceries," her husband David said. "Like, $30 worth!"
But on the 21st day, Raider opened his eyes and "ever since then he came to life," Earp said.
When the couple isn't home, Raider stays in a birdcage, which has a bed inside. He chews on sticks to keep his teeth filed down, and eats nuts and carrots and has a weakness for grapes. When they are home, he behaves like any pet -- excited to get out of his cage and be stroked and eat.
While he's still tame, he's become more rambunctious, as he's gotten older, Earp said. Luckily, he and her cat Mistic are friends, though the cat gets a certain look in her eyes when she watches Raider run around the room.
Squirrel Raising 101
Along with becoming more rambunctious, most wild animals become more aggressive as they get older, said Kim Robinson, a volunteer with North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators.
The volunteer group is made up of about 60 area volunteers who take in wild animals abandoned by their mothers or injured, in hopes of eventually returning them to the wild. Earp was asked to continue raising her squirrel herself because the group was at capacity when she called, Robinson said.
However, usually if someone calls and wants to raise a wild animal, volunteers tell them to bring it to them.
"Even the best intentions still get little animals killed when people don't know what to do," Robinson said. "It's more involved than what everyone thinks. You can't just feed them everything."
You must also be careful around wild animals and wash your hands often, she noted. However, baby wild animals usually do not carry disease because they often cannot live through it.
"You can pretty much tell after you've had the animal (if there's something wrong)," she said. "But you've always got to take safety precautions."
Back to the wild
Earp plans to release Raider into the wild in the next few weeks. She's been afraid that he's not quite ready for life on his own -- though he almost seems to be there now. When she and David recently let him play outside, Raider climbed high into a tree and didn't want to come back. Earp began to cry.
"I didn't ever think I'd get him down," she said. "My husband was laughing at me. I was like 'That's my baby, he can't go yet!' He's not ready."
To ease her mind, she and her husband plan to place several "squirrel houses" around their yard in case Raider hasn't mastered the art of nest building yet. They also plan to put food in the houses for him, though she's pretty sure he understands the concept of storing nuts for the winter because she found hidden acorn piles in his cage recently.
Earp says she can always recognize Raider from the other squirrels in her yard. She knows his markings. Plus, she thinks he is prettier than the other squirrels she's seen.
"He's beautiful to me," Earp said. "I don't know if it's just because I raised him, but to me, he is."
What to do
If you find a wild animal that looks like it needs help, call the North Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitators hotline at 883-0667.