One woman’s mission, one baby squirrel at a time
By ALEX HARMON
Special Contributor to the Empire Tribune, Stephenville
Published: Monday, February 16, 2009 8:58 AM CST
Some folks in Erath County may call her a nut, but when it comes to squirrel rescue, Birgit Sommer knows her stuff. As a licensed rehabilitator and founder of Rainbow Wildlife Rescue in Stephenville, Sommer has worked with dozens of squirrels endangered by natural disaster, injury or who have become separated from their parents.
“There are many key mistakes that people make when trying to rescue a baby squirrel and I want to help set the record straight,” Sommer said. “Although these tiny babies are adorable, they are not domesticated and do not make good pets. As a matter of fact, it is a Class C Misdemeanor in the State of Texas to possess a squirrel without the necessary permits.”
She described a typical scenario: A pile of leaves, crushed by February’s gusty winds and winter frosts, suddenly becomes a temporary home for a fluffy baby squirrel that has fallen from its nest and lies still in wait for its mother to find it. Slowly the baby starts getting chilled and with mom nowhere in sight, the chances for this baby’s survival without proper human intervention are slim.
Sommer suggests some useful advice when dealing with this type of scenario.
First, attempt to reunite the baby with the mom. If you think the mother squirrel may still be in the area and you have a good idea where the nest is located, first, give the mother the opportunity to retrieve the baby or babies.
Sommer cautioned that baby squirrels cannot only carry parasites such as fleas and lice, but they can also bite if they are old enough to have teeth, so they should never be handled without gloves.
Place the infant squirrel in a small box on an old T-shirt (no terry cloth where the little toenails can get hung up) at the base of the tree where it was first found. If there are dogs in the area, place the baby in a basket and tie the basket to the tree out of the dogs’ reach.
If the baby appears healthy and warm, allow 2 hours for the mother to reunite with her young while you observe from a safe distance. Even on hot summer days baby squirrels can get chilled quickly. A soda bottle filled with lukewarm water and covered with a sock can be placed near the baby. Make sure it can’t roll onto the baby and suffocate it by placing old shirts or rags around it, she suggested.
What happens when the mother does not return for her young or if the baby is visibly injured?
Bring the box containing the baby inside and place it in a dark, warm and quiet place away from children, pets, and loud noises. Limit handling the baby to the absolute minimum and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Veterinarians will not treat wildlife but usually will refer you to a local rehabilitator instead. Sommer explained she receives regular referrals from area vets.
In her experience, dehydration is very common when animals first arrive, and almost every orphaned baby is dehydrated to some degree. Unflavored Pedialyte, found in the baby aisle of the supermarket, is the best hydrating solution. Homemade rehydration fluid is made by combining 1 teaspoon salt with 3 tablespoons sugar in 1 quart of warm water. Microwaving the fluid is not advised.
Administer the fluid orally with a small 1-cc syringe or a rubber nipple if available. A syringe larger than 3-cc increases the risk of aspirating and drowning the squirrel baby, she explained.
Holding the baby in an upright position for feeding and rehydrating (never on its back), she feeds the baby 1-cc or ml of the hydrating solution every two hours, for up to 12 hours if necessary.
Sommer noted a few important safety tips to be observed when feeding squirrels in this way. Liquid coming out of the nose, indicating that the fluids have entered the lungs, could endanger a nursing baby squirrel. If this occurs, stop feeding immediately and allow the baby to clear its lungs by encouraging it to sneeze, because pneumonia will set in if the fluid is not expelled.
She also advised to never feed cow’s milk to a squirrel baby. Most baby animals, wild or domesticated, can’t handle the lactose in cow’s milk and develop diarrhea as a result. Most animals in need of human care are already in a compromised health condition and many won’t be able to survive additional digestive problems.
In addition to rehydrating a squirrel baby, it needs to be kept warm. No matter what heating source you use, make sure you give the baby enough room to get away from the heat. Always use the lowest setting of an electric heating pad.
“If you come across a squirrel with common ailments such as external parasites, visible injuries or obviously sick, it is critical that you speak with a rehabilitator immediately,” Sommer emphasized.
The Rainbow Wildlife Rescue is a non-profit organization working with local animals, wild and domestic alike, and is funded entirely by donations of food, supplies, and contributions from the public.