Christopher Durham, a 48-year-old actor, has raised nearly 200 squirrels in the last fifteen years. Right now, he has five, born in August, learning to crack nuts in his Washington Heights apartment. “I love New York City, but I feel totally isolated from wildlife,” says Durham, who was raised on a farm in Virginia where his parents let him take in animals. “Plus they’re really cute.”
Mother squirrels are often killed by misplaced rat poison, leaving behind “pinkies”—tiny bald, blind newborns that laymen can’t always distinguish from other mammal babes. This July, a family found what they presumed was a puppy in a Houston Street gutter. After raising it for a month, they realized it was a squirrel and found a “rehabber” to take it in. Luckily for the infant, puppy milk formula is exactly what baby squirrels need. It was later named Puppy.
Licensed rehabbers pass a test administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and submit to an interview. Their status must be renewed annually. Rehabbers (there are currently nine listed in the city) can all take in an array of orphaned, sick, or injured creatures, but they tend to specialize: The five current squirrel nurses are as baffled that somebody wants to nurse a pigeon as others are by their squirrel fascination. “Squirrels are just wonderful, intelligent, cheerful animals that want to live—unlike bunnies or birds, which always seem to want to die,” explains Bronx rehabber Maura Mandrano. “They greet every day with wonderful curiosity.”
We’re not in danger of running out of squirrels in the city, but abandoned newborns are often found on the ground. Rehabbers watch for a few hours to see if the mother returns—a storm or landscaping work might have knocked down a nest—before taking them in. The babies grow fuzz at about two weeks and open their eyes two or three weeks later. They screech like birds when they’re hungry or want to be held. Rehabbers feed them warm formula through a nipple-tipped syringe. At first they have to stimulate their genitals with a wet Q-tip to get them to urinate and defecate. As the squirrels get older, rehabbers handle them less and feed them nuts, apples, grapes, and corn. They can be released when they can crack nuts themselves, generally after twelve weeks.
“Most rehabbed squirrels can be successfully released. They are very resilient animals,” says veterinarian Anthony Pilny. “The issue is that they are so cute that people want to hold them and love them, and it makes them tame.” They sometimes recognize and greet their human parents. Mandrano, who helps run TheSquirrelBoard.com, said one squirrel returned months later with a broken leg. Once treated, he left again. “They want to be wild,” Mandrano says, wistfully. “I assume he’s having a squirrelly life out there.”