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Meanie Saves Baby Squirrel, Ruins Reputation

by on April 20, 2016 6:00 AM

Squirrels and humans, as the New York Times noted on Sunday, have a peculiar relationship. They don’t avoid us, the way other wild animals do. But they don’t snuggle with us, either, the way our pets do.

Mostly, squirrels are opportunists. They consort with us because we are the species that discards half-eaten sandwiches and lets fallen French fries lie.

College campuses are particularly happy hunting grounds for squirrels. At Penn State, as on other campuses (a couple of years ago the Huffington Post published a story headlined “The Colleges Most Obsessed with Squirrels”), the kids, desperately missing the pets they left behind, get the squirrels to eat out of their hands.

Out in the neighborhoods, Sciurus carolinensis is more standoffish. We hear him chattering in the trees and skittering across our roofs but he doesn’t let us get too close. I was surprised, therefore, when I almost stepped on a squirrel in my backyard over the weekend.

On closer inspection, I saw it was a young’un. It looked kind of shivery, but squirrels are twitchy creatures. I didn’t know if it needed help, or, if it did, what kind of help to provide, so I let it be.

Hey, I reasoned, it’s a crow-eat-varmint world. Survival of the fittest. Let nature takes its course.

Next morning, though, I saw that the varmint was still alive and looking none too bright-eyed or bushy-tailed. Forget evolutionary biology, the food chain, the law of talon and beak. This was a job for Robyn Graboski.

Graboski runs Centre Wildlife Care (CWC), a non-profit organization that nurses rescued critters back to health, then returns them to the wild. CWC’s website told me how to catch and carry a small wild animal. Graboski herself told me to bring our little critter to Central Pennsylvania Veterinary Emergency Treatment Services, or CPVETS, for preliminary care; she’d pick it up later.

Here is where the noble soul who shares her life with me took over, slipping on the gardening gloves and wrangling the patient into a shoebox. First we heard our captive scrabbling around with a frantic energy we did not know she had. Then she began to cry!

Fortunately, it’s a short drive from our house to CPVETS. The receptionist whisked our shoebox into the treatment area and the vet techs sprang into action. We watched their ministrations through a window, feeling like anxious parents outside a neonatal unit.

They felt her little limbs, stuck her with a needle, fed her with an eyedropper (she ate ravenously), ran a metal comb through her fur and washed her with dish soap.

I was of two minds. I couldn’t help but think of the millions of children around the globe (including the United States) who don’t get nearly the care this rodent was getting. At the same time, here was this live creature, small enough to nestle in the palm of her caregiver’s hand. The resources to nurse her back to health, along with the will to do so (i.e., compassion) were available. Why not save this life?  

Those who remember my column about Bimsli, the diabetic cat, are probably surprised at me. I didn’t particularly like Bimsli, I was not eager to fork over sizable sums to keep him alive, and I made the mistake of jokily wishing for his demise.

At the time I’d read a flurry of articles about pet spas, pet hotels, pet psychologists, pet massages, pet gourmet bakeries… The column reflected my bemusement at being a member of a culture that elevates pets to the status of full-fledged family members, with the attendant willingness to spend any amount of money on their care.

Readers thought it reflected my unfitness for membership in the human race. Several hoped I would contract a dread disease and be discarded by my loved ones.

Lost in the uproar was the fact that we paid for Bimsli’s care and continued to feed and medicate him until he died a peaceful death.  

Ten years later, I still take a dim view of some of the more extreme manifestations of pet worship. But I have also developed a keener appreciation of inter-species love, as well as a belief that compassion for all creatures great and small can only be a good thing.

I called Robyn Graboski on Monday to see how our 6-week-old was doing. She said the poor thing’s balance was off and she might have suffered a head or spine injury when she fell out of the nest. It was too soon to say she was out of the woods and could therefore be released back into the woods.

Oh, and she was part of a bumper crop of squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks, songbirds, owls and a crow that had come in over the weekend: the casualties of springtime.


To learn about (and donate to) CWC, go to

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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