First of all, let me introduce you to an Abert’s squirrel. They are a particular type of tree squirrel found in AZ high country where Ponderosa pines grow. This video produced by AZ Game & Fish gives you a great view of the appearance and movements of this lively forest creature.
My personal involvement with an Abert’s squirrel was in the late 70’s. I was up at the cabin (7,600 ft elevation) and it was October. The baby squirrel, spotted on the ground was no bigger than my hand. It was late afternoon and in an effort to save the helpless creature, I put it in a small box and brought it in the cabin. By morning, the poor little thing was lying very still in the box. I placed it on the dining room table where the morning sun was shining in. I knew it had to eat something, so a concoction was made up of thinned out cooked wheat cereal. A delivery device was made from a ball point pen tube and the experiment began. It’s not like I ever fed a squirrel before, but my desire to help it surpassed my inexperience. To my surprise the squirrel responded, licking the made-up breakfast off its lips (squirrels have lips?). Regular feedings, around the clock and after a few days it began to move around more and more. A cage was made with tree branches and a wooden hiding box was placed inside. It would be an experiment to see if the squirrel would survive to be released back into the wild and that meant spending the winter with me in the desert. Back at home, I took the squirrel out every day to feed it and give it water from a teaspoon. Not knowing the sex of the squirrel, I began calling it Scamper and decided it was a male. No real reason, I just decided.
Scamper thrived. He would cling to the sides of the cage when he saw me coming to feed him. I’d open the cage door and out he would come quickly. He would run around the house, making fast dashes across the living room, up the curtains and peeking out from his high perch. One day, as he was making a run, I lightly slapped my hand on my thigh and called to him. To my surprise he came to me, ran up my leg and sat on my shoulder. This got to be a regular routine and I quickly learned I needed to be wearing thick jeans and a heavy sweatshirt and gloves for this trick. His claws were very sharp and weren’t getting the wear of scaling up and down pine trees.
A trip was made back to the cabin that winter for the annual Christmas tree cutting. Scamper came along, in his cage, of course. I still took him out everyday for exercise and one evening he got into the woodpile by the fireplace. I was getting worried he might get stuck in there and started moving logs. One shifted and I heard a screech. A log had fallen on the end of Scamper’s tail and stripped the fur off and exposing a bloody 2 inch strip of bone. It healed just fine, but the fur didn’t grow back the same at the end of his tail. The very tip of the tail got fluffy and the unaffected part of the tail was fluffy, but the part that was injured looked shaved. oooo—o sort of like that.
I can’t look at Christmas tree to this day without thinking about the way Scamper looked at the one in the house that year. When the holiday was over, chopped up pieces of the tree were added to his cage to feast on. He loved munching on apples, nuts and pine cones too. He grew larger and stronger as the weeks went by.
After 5 or 6 months, he appeared to be not as lively to me. I decided to take him the vet to get checked out (isn’t that what responsible squirrel caretakers SHOULD do?). The vet came in the exam room and was ready to see Scamper. “You better close the door and get ready, because when I open this box, he’s going to come bursting out”, I warned the vet. The technician and doctor looked at each other and smiled, ready for the show and they got one. Just as predicted, Scamper exploded from the box and seemed to bounce off every corner of the tiny exam room. I had requested rabies shot for him and once the vet saw his size, and guessed his weight, he adjusted the dose. The vet cornered Scamper on the floor while on his hands and knees. Raising his hand over his head while hunched in the corner he said to his assistant,”Give it to me!” She handed him the syringe. “Ekkksqeeek!” Scamper cried. “OWWWW!” the vet cried. “He bit me!” I’ve felt like biting a doctor sometimes for hurting me too! I got the traumatized squirrel back in his box and apologized to the doctor.
Days warmed and it was soon time for the trip back to the cabin for Scamper’s release. I was sad for our relationship to end, but I had a feeling I’d never look at an Abert’s squirrel the same after his stay. The cage was placed on a tree stump out in front of the cabin and the cage door was opened. Scamper zoomed out and sat on the top of the cage. It didn’t take any coaxing for him to soon bound off the cage across the ground and up the nearest Ponderosa pine. He bit off tiny branch of new growth and ate with vigor. He looked so happy! His chirping sounds seemed a language of ecstatic expression and somehow I understood what he was saying. He ran, hopped and scampered from one spot to another as if overwhelmed by the perfect environment he now enjoyed. It was what happened next that will forever stay in my heart. Tentatively, with slow quick movements Scamper came down the pine tree and straight over to me. He ran up my leg and sat on my shoulder, looking around, one last time. It was if he said, “Thank you, thank you so much!” Then, “I gotta go!” and off he went.
The cage was placed high in that pine tree with the door wired open so he could come and go until he made a new home. Many squirrels live in that area, but Scamper was spotted again several times. It was his unique tail that gave him away. Did Scamper remember his adventure living with me? Probably not; but it’s an experience I’ll never forget.