A woman’s efforts to save a baby squirrel left her barn cat nursing the furry little creature along with its newborn kittens. But wildlife experts recommend she immediately rush the squirrel to an expert, although it’s thriving.
When Lisa Reichel’s young son found a baby squirrel that had fallen from a tall maple tree in their yard, she did everything she could to save it.
She called the Wilderness Center in Wilmot, where, she said, a naturalist assured her the furry little creature was doomed. Still, he suggested trying an eyedropper full of a milk-replacement substance.
It didn’t work. The substance dripped down the infant squirrel’s tiny face, its eyes not yet open.
“I thought if I don’t do something here, he’s going to die,” Reichel said.
Then she remembered her cat, Jingles, who had been nursing a new litter of five kittens for about a week.
Reichel gently encouraged the hesitant Jingles to take on the newborn squirrel.
“I thought maybe if I snuck that squirrel in there underneath her other kittens, that it could find a place to latch on and nurse from her and that she wouldn’t mind, if she didn’t notice it,” Reichel said.
Jingles reluctantly accepted the squirrel. Now she licks and nurses the squirrel as one of her kittens.
In the two weeks that followed, the infant squirrel has thrived. He nearly has doubled in size since Reichel placed him in the tub with Jingles and her kittens Aug. 11, she said.
While a cat’s nursing a squirrel may seem a little against the laws of nature, failure to hand it over to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation expert also breaks state law in Ohio.
“She can get in trouble if a (state) wildlife officer knows she has it. I know she can be slapped with a fine. ... There can be jail time,” said Stephon Echague, director of animal care at Stark Parks’ Sanders Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Perry Township. “It is illegal for someone to raise them without the proper permit.”
The law requires someone who finds a wild animal to take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center within 24 hours, she said.
Additionally, while a cat nursing a baby squirrel is not unheard of, it’s not natural, she said. The only time it ever happens is when humans interfere.
Still, said Scott Peters, assistant wildlife management supervisor with the Ohio Division of Wildlife Management, “This is a relatively common thing. Good Samaritans generally don’t realize ... the sooner they call us, the better.”
While neither Peters nor Echague could name the criminal charge or the legal penalty, both recommended Reichel bring the animal quickly to a rehab center.
But Reichel said when told by The Repository, “They have their rules and they don’t pertain to us. He’s doing fine. He would have died if we hadn’t helped him. We appreciate their advice, but we’ll take care of him the best we can. We’re going to do what we feel is best.”
Page 2 of 3 - Keeping wildlife wild
Reichel said she is considering releasing the squirrel soon. She planned to grind up walnut meats to see whether he could eat solid food.
She also believes he has maintained his “wild” tendencies. When she placed him in a hay bale-enclosed portion of the barn with his adoptive feline brothers and sisters “so he could get a good look at them,” he began to stomp his tiny feet and hiss, the way a squirrel normally would do upon encountering a predator.
“He seems to have retained some of his normal wild instinct. We want to try to incorporate him back into the wild if we can,” Reichel said. “I don’t know if he’s getting teeth yet.”
With no prior squirrel handling experience, Reichel said she handles him as little as possible, and she doesn’t let her young sons — Lawrence, 7, and Benjamin, 5 — touch him.
“I do think we’re going to have to separate (the squirrel from the cats) before too long,” Reichel said. “Once he starts eating nuts or other food, then I think he might become appetizing to (Jingles). But you can’t keep a wild animal trapped like that. They want to be free, and we’re going to try to make that happen.”
Echague is concerned the squirrel already will have lost its fear of felines.
“If he opened his eyes already, he’s going to associate the cat as mother, and that’s what we don’t want,” she said. “Unfortunately, when the squirrel gets older, he’s going to recognize cats as something friendly and not worry about being around them. But cats are true hunters and could possibly cause his death. He needs to be with other squirrels so that he knows that he is a squirrel.”
Nonda Surratt, a wildlife expert with the website www.squirrel-rehab.org, agreed.
“I doubt seriously if the squirrel is old enough to be released, and the squirrel needs to be on a proper weaning diet. Ground nuts are not it,” she said in an e-mail to The Repository. “Infant squirrels in the wild have mom and they go through a learning process. They are not ‘hard-wired’ like rabbits. So to take a young squirrel and just dump him/her back outside would be like dropping you on Mars. Also, part of the learning process is jumping, landing, springing branches, etc. We can ‘help’ with this process by providing proper cage furniture.”
Local “rehabbers” also release the squirrels back into the wild — after some indoctrination efforts with other squirrels, Echague said.
“We can take the baby in and put him in with other babies his same size. We do release him when he gets to a certain age,” she said.
Page 3 of 3 - Surratt’s website enables users to contact licensed wildlife rehabilitation experts, and it also contains detailed information about what to do upon encountering an infant or injured squirrel. The website explains the importance of a heating pad and mentions unflavored Pedialyte as a safe solution for a dehydrated squirrel.
The website also mentions cats.
“Cats carry a bacteria in their saliva called Pasteurella,” the site said. “If any wild animal is exposed to the saliva from a cat, the bacteria affects their central nervous system. Unless the proper antibiotics are administered within the first 12-24 hours, the animal will eventually die.”