Leave No Child Inside: Baby squirrel greeting

The Four Rivers Environmental Coalition, in concert with the national Leave No Child Inside campaign, is committed to ensuring the children of this region will grow up with a strong connection to nature, and, as a result, be healthier and motivated to become its caring stewards. This column is one of a bi-weekly series contributed by Four Rivers Environmental Coalition members to raise public awareness of the importance of access to nature for healthy childhood development, and to encourage families to explore our member organizations’ wondrous places and programs, such as camping, learning projects, and programs for schoolchildren. Visit www.fourriver.org.

By KatieTownsend

Program Manager of Environmental Recreation and Education, Rockford Park District

As a 10-year-old, I rejected my mother’s suggestion of attending charm school and found others to guide my development in the social graces. I watched the animals.

My encounters with wildlife provided a rich source of instruction on primordial greetings. It was all there. Observing exhibitions of polite bowing, posturing, dancing, shaking, jumping, tail-wagging and growling as well as an affectionate brush of a tongue were so much more enlightening than a Saturday morning of wearing white gloves. Although it is difficult to take dainty steps in your hiking boots, my furry, feathered, scaly madams and gents have rendered me ready to mingle.

Much of animal behavior still remains a mystery and a struggle for interpretation. I am as prone to anthropomorphism as the next person. Yet, I bemoan missed opportunities of beautiful connections our children sometimes sacrifice as a result of their ignorance. Fear of disease, and the myth that the natural world is a place of jeopardy, can ruin any special encounter. Even a baby squirrel greeting is suspect rather than treasured. I know, as it happened last night, even in the best of places…a “nature center.”

A nestling squirrel ended up on the forest floor rather than the comfort of a leafy nest perched in the deciduous canopy. How the familiar rodent ended up out of the tree tops is speculation. This little soul may not have been able to ride out the swaying branches of thunderstorm-generated gusts. Whatever the case, the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed creature approached a group of campers with few inhibitions. As it sniffed at the pant legs of children and the leader, it became obvious it had the misguided impression that everything is a friend. The group became more alarmed as the innocence of youth turned into zeal. The little fellow began to crawl up on one young lady, scurrying up for a closer look.

The squirrel did not consider the reality of barriers to such an experience. Unspoiled by any negative contact with the sons and daughters of Eve, introductions may have seemed in order. Compare this reaction with the children, who were well-versed in the dangers that can occur when animal and human babies spend time in mixed company. It did not take long for the word rabies to be spoken on that night hike, although the instructor quickly removed the kitten (term for a baby squirrel) with a covered hand, gently set it down and directed the group to hike away from the furry bundle. Do not get me wrong, as a naturalist, I know the “leave no trace” philosophy and Principle Six. It reads: “Respect Wildlife. … Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.” However, it does not cover what to do when little critters approach us.

There is a need for a finishing school of the woods. The program would incorporate a different kind of etiquette. Socialization between the various species that share planet earth would be the focal point of every field trip. This charming education would be something worth getting up for and devoting a dozen Saturdays to. (Plus, you would only have to wear gloves for the winter semester to keep your fingers warm.) The polished student would know the difference between the innocent approach of a displaced and unweaned squirrel, the follow-the-leader walk of an imprinted gosling or immediate avoidance of a diseased animal. The resulting action may be the same with a “keep your distance policy” for all cases. With training, the debutantes and beaus could exhibit a poise that comes with understanding, rather than shrieking panic or ending in the spinning of elaborate yarns about a beastie squirrel

Alas, most of us urbanites grow up as commoners in the ways of society as well as the wild. So, in closing, I offer a little public education…

University of Michigan Web site, http://animaldiversity.ummzumich.edu, states that squirrels are ranked as second to birds in value to nature watchers. Or, in other words, squirrels are good.

According to e-medicine doctor Joel Schlessinger in his discussion about animal bites and disease, squirrels rarely carry rabies. The biggest carriers are skunk, fox and bats. A quote from the Squirrelmania Web site says, “Let us not give rabies to squirrels when nature, for the most part, does not.”

Squirrels are not commonly aggressive. Wildlife Medical Center at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, tells us this solution for grounded squirrels: “The animal has most likely fallen from the nest. If you can find the nest, it is perfectly OK to put the baby back.” Note: Make sure your hand is protected by a glove or covered to avoid scratches and nips.

Karen Herdklotz, animal rehabilitator from the Rock River Valley’s own Hoo Haven, says an “experienced mama squirrel will retrieve her fallen baby. However, a younger mother may not know what to do, and after several hours, if the youngster is still alone, it will require help for survival.” That is when it is time to contact a state licensed rehabilitator for aid. Do not try to raise it alone, as it is illegal and can be harmful to the health of the animal.

If you touch a baby squirrel or rabbit, it does not mean the mother will reject it because of your human scent. The best options are a mother and child reunion, so place the baby back in the proximity of nests or original habitat, and observe the situation. Illinois DNR pamphlet “The Mother’s Day and everyday don’t bother young wildlife” is quoted as saying: “Wild animals are excellent mothers, but they must leave their young while they forage for food. Oftentimes, the mother will be gone all day, so the young wildlife appear to be abandoned when it actually is not.”

The gray squirrel usually has a second litter in August, so a Homo sapien and Rodentia getting together is a real possibility. With a little empathy and enlightenment, a few more of us will be able to offer a squirrel greeting. Tolerance, a smile or a helping hand is as good as a handshake in the forest circle of life.

To make tax-deductible donations to animal rehabilitation and long-term care, contact:

Hoo Haven—a 501(c) 3 organization—can be reached at hoohaven.org or phone (815) 629-2212. This nonprofit organization takes in many orphaned mammals and birds of prey, and relies on donations and volunteers for support.

Rockford Park District, Birds of Prey Program, Atwood Environmental Center—tomhill@rockfordparkdistrict.org or phone (815) 874 7576. This program cares for injured raptors that can no longer survive in the wild. The hawk, owls and kestrel are used as teaching birds at Atwood Environmental Education programs, and can be viewed by the public at Atwood Lodge, 2685 New Milford School Road, Rockford, IL 61109. Donations and volunteers are appreciated.

Katie Townsend is program manager of Environmental Recreation and Education for the Rockford Park District’s Atwood Environmental Education Center. E-mail her at katietownsend@rockfordparkdistrict.org.

from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue

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