PAWS Magazine

Issue 43, Fall 1999

Saving Lives... One Squirrel at a Time

by Richard Huffman / Editor

Wildlife rehabilitation is a job best left to the experts. Every day the PAWS wildlife facilities in McCleary and Lynnwood care for dozens of different species of wildlife, each with their own unique, complicated needs. But PAWS has found that one particular critter, the squirrel, is well suited to foster care from volunteers. So with some rigorous training, PAWS teaches volunteers to become squirrel foster parents and help free up valuable facility space and staff time.

"We see a few hundred squirrels every year at both facilities," says PAWS Olympic Wildlife Rescue Manager Jennifer Convy. "The foster care program gives us a little more time to make sure that they are given the care that they need. It's a staffing issue."

In many cases PAWS Wildlife is able to prevent many squirrels from unnecessarily being brought to the two PAWS facilities. "Usually a person finds a single squirrel or a nest of squirrels," says Convy.

"Oftentimes there was a storm and the nest was knocked out of a tree. If the parent squirrel is around, we instruct people to put the babies back into the nest or create a new nest. Parent squirrels will still take care of their young even if the young have been handled."

But other times the parent squirrels are either nowhere to be found or turn up dead. This is when PAWS encourages the babies to be taken to one of the two PAWS wildlife facilities. PAWS doesn't just send squirrels to foster homes with a thank you and a shoebox. Every squirrel foster parent undergoes specialized training, and receives all the necessary food, caging, heating pads and cleaning supplies. "Basically, we teach people how to feed and clean them," explains Convy, "and to make sure that the squirrels are progressing at a healthy rate."

All squirrels receive a formula-based diet, specially prepared for squirrels. Once they are old enough to be weaned off the formula, they are given a staple diet, supplemented with foods from their natural environment.

Fortunately for squirrels, their natural instincts are very strong. "They learn to eat hard foods pretty quickly on their own," says Convy. "But we will often house them with other squirrels so they can learn to compete for food and learn other squirrel behavior."

Besides teaching volunteers about squirrels' instinctive behavior, the PAWS training sessions also teach the volunteers about overcoming one instinctive human behavior; the desire to cuddle the adorable squirrels. "As with any animal, squirrels can become humanized easily," says Convy. "So we train our volunteers not to talk to the animals or cuddle them."

Foster families need to provide a room for their squirrels separate from children, companion animals, and loud noises. The room has to have a constant temperature. The squirrels are fed up to four times daily and are usually in the care of the foster family for two to three weeks.

"This is a very rewarding and quite unusual experience for a volunteer," says Convy.

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