Monday, March 20, 2006

Profiles in Squirrelage

One of the things I do at work is track down quirky, interesting people and write profiles of them for the company newsletter, which I manage. I got a tip that one of the employees is an animal rescuer. With visions of abandoned family pets being wooed into skiffs along flooded New Orleans streets, I e-mailed her of my interest in profiling her and wrote that I was imagining the scene described above. She wrote back and said, "Actually, I rescue squirrels."

Well, hell. How goofy is that? I had very un-Buddha like thoughts about the relative value of squirrels. But that bell couldn't be unrung, so I assigned the story to a young freelancer who sent the woman some questions about her avocation. Meanwhile, I e-mailed her asking for a photo of herself with squirrels and she writes back, delighted, and commits to getting me great photos. And she does. She sends two. The first is of her with an adolescent squirrel perched on her back, looking very Babe the pig: la-la-la-la-la! She's gazing over her shoulder at the squirrel. I feel a shock of recognition, because this is exactly what Ido when my cat perches on my shoulder. The second photo is a closeup of the woman's cupped hands, in which, curled up and nested together, are 4 tiny squirrels, no bigger than a minute. I am undone.

In practically the same minute, her replies to the questions come in, and her story wins me over. She started out trying to feed birds, was innundated with squirrels, couldn't shoo them away and set up squirrel feeders to distract them. The squirrels turned out to be much more interesting than the birds, and over time, she started recognizing them as individuals, then actually approaching them and eventually they were feeding from her hand. She started noticing ones that were injured or sick, and -- in an effort to repay the trust they extended to her, a predator -- starting studying animal rehabilitation and years later, received her license to care for and rehabilitate injured eastern gray squirrels.

People bring her squirrels that have been orphaned, fallen out of nests, hit by cars. She nurses them, mends them, releases them and when necessary, euthanizes them. She doesn't do the medical stuff herself -- she has a network of vets who do those things. She and I were talking today about people all over the world who do animal rescue and rehabilitation. She mentioned that in Africa, rescuers inevitably work with primates -- something that could be supremely rewarding but with the most devastating down side: having to euthanize a chimp or an ape. That was a stunning thought, and it occurred to me that few people would have a stronger point of view on human euthanasia than the individuals who work with primates. She instantly agreed, noting that some of the vets she worked with had expressed the wish that it was legal to help humans end their suffering the way we can for animals. It was one of those conversations that went from zero to intense in minutes because we were on the same brainwave.

Once again, I felt the power of an individual to open a new vista of thinking and awareness. Don't you love when that happens? I came home and hugged my cats (much to their annoyance). And I'll tell you, I will never look at squirrels the same way again.

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