UPDATE: An adult squirrel has been seen in the trees near the nest. It's not clear yet whether it's the mother.
I have a soft spot for animals. All of my dogs and cats have been rescues, and I’ve brought home probably a dozen stray dogs over the years, reuniting all but one with their owners. The only one we didn’t reunite, Hugo the black lab, became my best buddy for 14 years.
So when my neighbor cried out Wednesday evening that some tiny animals had fallen from a Douglas fir into her driveway, I was there in seconds with a towel to scoop up the trio of 4-inch, hairless babies. I was convinced they must be raccoons. I have no idea why I thought that, other than I’d seen raccoons up that tree before.
She said she’d heard them screaming as they fell, then heard them hit the hard ground. She was very worried that they hadn’t survived. But all three were breathing, and moving slightly. One had obviously hit on his eye, which was packed with small gravel. I used a Q-tip and saline solution to gently clean away the gravel.
It was my neighbor who suggested they might be squirrels. I called a friend in Oregon whose family had started one of the Willamette Valley’s first wildlife-rehabilitation centers. He confirmed they probably were squirrels (even baby raccoons look like raccoons, he said). Because they were so young and had no hair, he explained the most important thing was to keep them warm. He suggested putting a heating pad under the towel but said a bottle of warm water would work just as well.
Then he asked the most important question: “Can you get them back in the nest?” He told me that was their best chance for survival. I had no idea where they had fallen from and didn’t know what to look for. I told him I would call a wildlife-rescue specialist in Olympia and found For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation, a nonprofit agency.
I talked Heaven’s Sake director Claudia Supensky. The first words out of her mouth were, “Can you find the nest, and get them back in?” Again, she explained that unless the animal was injured, its best best chance for survival is back with its parents.
With her direction, I looked for a clumping of branches above where the babies fell and saw the nest about 35 feet up the tree. It looked like an experienced tree climber could reach the nest, so Supensky called volunteer Gina Jacobsen of Lacey to offer her expertise. Jacobsen arrived within 30 minutes and immediately recognized that climbing wasn’t going to work. The nest was about 6 feet out on a small limb, and the only limb near was even smaller, 5 feet below the nest and bending downward.
I was preparing to take the squirrels to Heaven’s Sake. But Jacobsen wasn’t ready to give up, even though it was getting dark. She called a friend, Sekeli Manu of Manu & Sons General Contractors in Lacey. Manu installs fiber-optic lines and is an experienced high-lift truck operator. Manu got a co-worker to cover for him while he took an hour for lunch and brought the truck to give Jacobsen the precise boost she needed.
“I’m not a squirrel rescuer; I do fiber optics,” Manu said with a chuckle.
By now they were working in pitch-darkness, but Manu was able to carefully position Jacobsen through the branches, where she was able to return the babies to their nest. Jacobsen said it appeared a falling branch might have knocked the babies from the nest.
The concern now is whether the mother squirrel returned to the nest during the night. The babies – estimated by Jacobsen to be 2 weeks old – need to be fed every couple of hours. I’ve been keeping my eye on the tree but have not seen the mother squirrel. The hardest thing is looking up at that nest and not knowing whether they’re OK. Part of me thinks they would be better off if I’d kept them and tried to care for them myself.
But, I know that’s wrong.
First, it’s illegal to keep wildlife in the state unless you are licensed.
Second, the biggest mistake people make is hanging on to a wild animal too long.
“We lose more animals because someone has kept them for two or three days, then brings it to us when it’s sick,” Supenski said. “They mean to be doing the right thing, but they don’t know, and eventually do the wrong thing. It’s not nearly as good as mom and dad raising it.”
And finally, “nine times out of ten the parent is coming back,” Supenski said. Unless you can determine that the parents aren’t coming back, you’re best leaving wild animals alone. Coyotes, foxes and seals all leave their young for a long time, she said, with deer leaving fawns alone for up to 12 hours.
“If they’re not sure, leave it alone and call a rehabilitator,” Supenski said.