Our cats were acting suspicious yesterday evening, sniffing around the trunk of a coast live oak in the backyard. My husband heard what he thought was a blue jay. I ran outside, shooed the cats away, circled the tree, and there on it’s back, paws frozen in air, looking dead was a small squirrel. Thinking we would need to either bury it or put it in our trashcan, and remembering all the stern warnings I’d heard never to touch a wild animal, I sent my husband to the shed for a shovel. He returned and as he lowered the shovel toward the ground the squirrel stirred and let out a pitiful squawk. Kevin gently turned the squirrel upright, but it was too stunned to move. I got the cat carrier from the garage and Kevin guided the little thing inside.
We tried to contact Native Animal Rescue, which was closed, so we did what we do best. Internet research. We switched out the towels in the carrier for t-shirts so the squirrel wouldn’t catch a toenail and risk further injury, and got close enough to see his face was bleeding and he was infested with fleas. We put a towel over the crate, a heating pad underneath, shut the door to my office and let the squirrel rest in the warm room until my husband finished our taxes. Before we went to bed we mixed up a rehydration solution and my husband administered it through a dropper while I held the squirrel in the bundled t-shirt. The little thing didn’t move, but did drink some and his mouth was bloody.
I fretted all evening about the squirrel. I wanted to save him, but despite reading rescue instructions we didn’t know how to assess the squirrel’s injuries or conduct the skin pinch test to see if he was dehydrated. We thought his mother was still in the oak tree and wondered if we could get all the cats indoors, put him under the tree and stand guard until she carried him to safety. Instead, we left him inside, safe, but unsure if we were doing the right thing.
The squirrel was still alive at six a.m. when my husband woke up and attempted to give it more fluids. The squirrel was also quite vocal, that blue-jay squawk again, he wanted something—his mother, the outdoors, away from these invasive humans. I began making phone calls at 8 a.m. when Native Animal Rescue reopened, and after an hour and a half, calls with three different women, and answering their questions to determine what was best for the little squirrel, found one willing to assess him and keep him until the baby squirrel specialist got home from work this afternoon.
When I delivered the squirrel to Vicki’s home, she reached in the cat carrier, scruffed him with one hand and scooped him into her palm in a fluid motion. She looked at his wounds and said they weren’t from my cats (quite a relief) but associated with the fall. This squirrel is about five weeks old. His body is quite small, but baby squirrels are top heavy and often land on their heads. Bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth is common. She said he looked quite dehydrated—and most likely something had happened to his mother. When their mothers disappear, the squirrels sometimes leave the nest looking for food and fall. I spotted the nest this morning, a good twenty-feet up, and I saw another squirrel out on a branch and watched it return to the nest. Most likely it’s a sibling. I don’t know how many other babies are in the nest. If their mother doesn’t return, I may find more on the ground (dead or alive) or they will die in the tree.
I think about Annie Dillard who wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I read for my MFA program and one of our Art & Faith studies. I think about Annie stalking muskrats and insects and watching decay and reporting on death, and I wonder what would’ve happened if her tomcat had brought in a half-dead mouse and left it in her bed one night. Would she have sat there, notebook in hand, recording its blood loss, and labored breathing and timing how long it took to die? Or, would she have stepped back from her observer status and done something? Try to save it, or even try to kill it—quickly, “humanely”?
It’s not lost on me that my squirrel rescue project began on Palm Sunday. I retired from pastoral ministry at the end of June and bowed to the recognition around Christmas that my spiritual journey has lead me out of my local church and familiar context. In the past four months I’ve been waiting for what is supposed to come next. It hasn’t arrived yet. But the squirrel did and I recognize my desire to save, to do something. I see how too often in the course of my personal life and ministry I have wanted to save those I care for from pain.
I’ve wanted to do it, whatever it is, right, and right away. I couldn’t bear to think of this squirrel suffering, and it seems proper and reasonable to seek the help of people with experience and training. I don’t think they or I are in danger of fostering codependent squirrels, of doing for them what they and God need to do. But when it comes to humans, the situations are much more complicated. I think, that like this wounded squirrel, there are times when each of us needs intervention and saving. And, I’m also becoming aware that sometimes that saving really does need to come from God alone, and not from humans acting on God’s behalf.
And so I am changing my usual patterns. I am praying for my long-time church and its members from a distance instead of wrapped in its midst. Coming from a home that broke and broke again, I’ve been desperate for belonging and terrified of being alone most of my life, and would gladly bear anyone’s pain just to stay in relationship. I’m learning to trust that healing is possible, and experiencing in my own life something I preached often––that God can work in and through you and me without any conditions, restrictions or requirements. Giving my life to a church isn’t the same as giving myself to God, and Jesus will drive that message home each day on this journey through Holy Week.
I can’t save a squirrel or myself no matter how carefully I follow website instructions or church doctrine. I can stand on that dusty road waving palms expecting Jesus to do everything I want and end up disappointed.
I desire the squirrel’s healing and also recognize its future is out of my control. I pray for myself, and this wounded world in need of healing salve, in need of saving that we can’t make happen, that is only given us through grace. I walk through this week, already knowing the outcome, and waiting to live it out.