That story I mentioned

So in the wildlife rehab post recently, I mentioned a story about a grey squirrel and that I may explain it in detail later. That post was first made in 2013, then reposted in 2014 and again in 2021, and I am now getting around to relating that story; I figure eight years is enough to build the suspense…

At the time, I worked for a humane society that tackled a lot of projects, among them wildlife rehabilitation, and I was living onsite as a caretaker and bookkeeper for this expanded facility. Someone, some ‘member of the public,’ had brought to us an adult eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) that they had attempted to raise as a pet and finally gave up on as it was getting too aggressive. This is an exceedingly common result from such attempts, the primary reason why it is actively discouraged (and usually illegal.) Humans domesticated dogs and cats thousands of years ago, and yet they still have habits that we often wish they didn’t, because traits are usually dictated by genes over a period of millions of years; the traits of wildlife are not going to go away with a couple months of living in different conditions. How the animal views its surroundings and interactions is entirely different from how we do, and its expectations and simple habits are usually not something that we even comprehend. Witness the grey squirrels in several urban areas that became notably aggressive during this pandemic as their primary food sources all but dried up, and there are plenty of other stories of that type to be found. In short, don’t raise wildlife as pets – it will likely turn out entirely different than you imagine, and not in a good way.

This particular squirrel was, I think, about two years old and female (which is slightly better – males tend to turn a lot more aggressive a lot faster.) We had her housed in an outdoor cage in the woods that we used to acclimatize rehab patients to outdoor conditions before they were eventually released, what we called a ‘halfway house.’ They have shelter and food types largely commensurate with what they could find in the wild, but contact was minimal and they were otherwise exposed to the elements. My job was to provide the food and water and try to monitor her to determine that she seemed to be coping with this introduction to kinda-wild conditions.

For the first few days, she seemed fine, but then started getting notably agitated at my presence; I surmise that this was from not getting either the food types or the schedule that she was used to, but may also have been some anxiety over the temperature (it was summer, so nothing drastic) or possibly the presence of predators outside the cage at night. Whatever the reason, she began darting for the door as I opened it to put the food and water within, necessitating some gymnastics on my part, distracting her at the opposite end and moving fast while she was away from the door.

It only took a day before she figured this out. I put the food in one afternoon and slipped the door closed just before she hit the gap, watching her twitch her tail rapidly at this action. She was following me around the cage on the inside, clinging to the wire sides, and I did a quick dodge around the end to lure her down that way and put a nut in the wire for her to dig out. She was no fool, and when I darted back to the door with the water dish, even though I had it open for a bare second or so, she hit it flying from across the cage, bounced off the wire of the door, and landed on my shoulders.

She’d been a ‘pet,’ so I wasn’t at all alarmed at this, and knew better than to move suddenly or freak out or anything, and I just put the water dish down and then turned back to look at her in the attempt to coax her back into the cage. It was then that I became aware of a strange tugging sensation on my shoulder, the feel of something pulling on my back from within, and abruptly realized that she was biting the hell out of my shoulder. Somehow, she had nailed the nerve almost as soon as she started to bite down (I was already expecting her claws to dig in a bit so the initial sensations weren’t unexpected,) and thus the deep bite didn’t register anywhere near as painful as it should have been – and let me tell you, squirrels can bite. They gnaw through wood and nut hulls routinely. But the sensation of her teeth within the muscle of my shoulder registered nonetheless, and in a flash, I snatched her off my shoulder and flung her into the cage in one fluid movement, never giving her a chance to redirect her attention to my hand. She landed on the wire again and chattered angrily, but the door was already closed.

When I turned the attention to my shoulder, I found a decent amount of blood but not horrendous, and a noticeable puncture wound that it was exceedingly strange to feel with my fingertips yet be almost unaware of at the shoulder where the wound actually was. She had also put two distinct holes in my almost-brand-new favorite T-shirt that I’d gotten at the Carolina Raptor Center, for which I could never forgive her; it was the perfect shade of slate blue and had kestrels on it, a species I was particularly attached to. Little shit.

Within the next day or so, rather than risk further mishap, we elected to release her, figuring that at least she had the moxie to deal with adverse conditions, but there was little we could do to ensure she had all of the habits she’d need, and those traits were likely still present anyway. Meanwhile, I still have both the scar and the nerve damage: if you poke my shoulder with a sharp object at just the right spot, I will feel the pressure through the underlying muscle, but not the object itself. I should convince doctors to vaccinate me there…

But you know, while I’m here, I have two other rehab stories from the same time period, though granted, they speak nothing of the hazards of treating wildlife as pets. Well, mostly not.

In one case, we had a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that had been orphaned and was near adult size. For a short period of time she was housed in a smaller cage within the barn, before she was moved to a flight cage as the final stage before release. Every morning I brought her mice, frozen but thawed to roughly ‘live’ temperature, and deposited them in her cage where she would seize them eagerly and turn her back to me to devour them, hunched over with wings slightly spread, a habit that I guessed was meant to protect her meal from siblings. She was completely fine with my reaching in the cage however, though I never let her get too used to this, but it was curious to see her disregard for this encroachment, and it worried me slightly. She needed to have a healthy distrust of humans, and especially not see them as food sources, but that would also be enforced in the next step, the flight cage.

One morning, with nothing out of the ordinary that I could see, I entered the barn to find her agitated, darting her gaze around and dodging on her perch animatedly. I watched this for a moment, unsure what caused it, knowing that I personally had done nothing different and could neither hear nor see anything amiss in the barn. After a moment, I went ahead and opened the door slowly, and introduced the mice.

She hopped across the perch and landed onto my wrist as it was extended with the mice, and clamped down with the talons, only momentarily. The thing was, one of these sharp and massive nails bit right into my wrist directly on top of that bump of bone on the outside (go ahead, look at it,) lancing down through the thin skin to the joint and cartilage. It was only a handful of millimeters, far less than the squirrel’s bite, but in exactly the wrong place, and this hurt like a motherfucker, easily one of the most painful things that I’ve ever felt (and I’ve had kidney stones.) It was the kind of injury that you wring your arm up and down madly, as if this would do anything at all, but you have no choice, and I treated her to a fine collection of expletives regarding her ancestry and sexual predilections. And yet, it barely even bled, but it throbbed like hell all day long.

And I still have no idea why this occurred. I can only guess that something, a fox perhaps, was sniffing around outside the barn not long before I came in, or another red-tail was sounding off very close by. Anything smaller and she would have been delighted at the prospect of a meal, so rats were out, and really, little else could have entered the barn. But I was a lot more circumspect with her feedings after that.

red-tailed hawk Buteo jamaicensis in rehab flight cage
Old, shitty negative, and probably not one of the mentioned patients, but a representative example anyway
We also had a couple of flight cages at the facility, and these were massive, wood-slat affairs, roughly 4 meters square on the end and 13 meters long, to allow medium-sized raptors to gain wing strength before release. For one of our red-tailed hawk patients (I’m fairly certain not my assailant above,) we wanted to ensure that they knew how to hunt, which was tricky – chances are, even with live prey within the cage, they wouldn’t do anything if they knew someone was nearby observing them. What I ended up doing was setting up a surveillance camera. This was the mid-nineties, so what we’d been donated was a full-size, shoulder-mount videocamera that held complete VHS tapes – you know, the size of a hardcover book. This was set up in the far end of the flight cage on a tripod, with a protective plastic bag (red-tailed hawks defecate horrendously, managing quite some distance at times.) I started the camera, then released a handful of live mice on the floor of the cage while the hawk was high above on a perch, and slipped out.

Later in the day I came back and collected the camera when the battery had run down, producing not quite two hours of tape, and brought it in to the VCR. After several minutes of virtually nothing at all to see – some slight fidgeting on the perch, because red-tails conserve energy and often sit observing for hours at a time – I began fast-forwarding through the tape, watching the slight jiggling and jerky movements of the hawk on the perch. And then, whoops!, a sudden flash of action off of the perch! I rolled it back and played it at normal speed, seeing the hawk suddenly drop into an alert pose with eyes fixed on the floor of the cage. Raptors often do this little head-bob-and-circle movement as they spot potential prey, trying for a clear look and getting the range, so it’s often obvious when they spot something. And in another moment, the hawk dropped from the perch to the floor of the cage, stayed down there for a minute or two fidgeting, then returned to the perch. The resolution was too low to determine that it actually held a mouse, but the actions of eating it were unmistakable. Success!

For a later patient, I created a small ‘wading pool’ for the mice, because the greater area of the cage allowed too many nooks for mice to disappear into, and so they were housed in a two-meter square pen with sides too high for them to jump out of. This patient (another red-tail) had been raised from a fledgling so we wanted to know it had the instinct to hunt on its own, and it sat high above me on a perch as I prepared the buffet. After releasing the mice within the pen, I stepped back for a moment to observe them, and the hawk slammed onto the floor within the mouse pen not two meters away from me. Red-tails have a violent attack mode, counting on their strong legs to halt their descent and on their body weight to often incapacitate their prey – there’s nothing delicate or graceful about it, and they don’t fly down to their prey, they plummet with little effort at arresting their speed. So the spectacle right in front of me was a bit startling. After only a moment, the hawk hopped to the edge of the pen with a mouse in its talons, regarded me stoically and without alarm from little more than an arm’s length away, then flew up to its perch to consume its meal. Well, fine – not worried about your hunting abilities at all.