MY FRIEND FATSO
Growing up in the 1940’s in Brooklyn was extremely difficult for me, this child of nature who longed for the velvety feel of green grass under her feet, the sweet smell of flowers in the air and the unconditional love of a collie ever by her side.
To make matters worse, in the home I grew up in “cleanliness was next to godliness”, so no pets were allowed and the only plants “grown” were those of the artificial variety. Outside, cement ruled and a few scraggly trees unsuccessfully tried their very best to graciously line the narrow street on which I lived. In front of my house, what could have been a stately maple tree had it been properly cared for, suffered not only from a lack of love, but, also, from the indignity of every spring having its bark painted white by my Uncle Johnny with whatever leftover house paint he could find.
So is it any wonder that I disobeyed my parents as often as I could, walking the two or so miles from my home to Highland Park where I delightedly basked in the warm sunshine while listening to the soothing sounds of the birds. And, it was here, where I contentedly enjoyed the serene simplicity of nature, that my life-long love affair with squirrels began …
Although more than fifty years have gone bye since those surreptitious trips to the park, and, during that time, I have had more than my share of memorable “wild-friends” of all shapes and sizes, furred and feathered, I still have not lost my fascination with those furry grey critters. I would like to share with you the story of one unique squirrel who will always have a very special place in my heart …
He came into my life one late October day via my friend, Bridget, a north shore veterinarian who specializes in wildlife. She asked if I would be able to raise a pair of non-related baby squirrels who had both fallen out of their respective north and south shore tree nests during a bad storm, which had wreaked havoc on the Island. They were both healthy and just needed a place that would afford them a little more time growing up time. There was a slight catch though … by the time they would be old enough to be released it would be the middle of winter, not a very friendly and hospitable time and place for two baby squirrels to make their debut into squirrel society, especially these two who didn’t know anything at all about the world out there. Of course, it meant that I would have to keep them in my house until late spring.
Understandably, my husband was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of hosting two baby squirrels in his home throughout the winter months, but he must love me dearly because he did say, “yes”, albeit after much grousing and grumbling. In retrospect, although I doubt that he would ever admit it to me, I do think he completely enjoyed the experience.
The nursery was in my workroom on the third floor of my almost one hundred year old Dutch colonial. Their crib was a small pet carrier that I filled with fluffy towels. Like all babies, they either slept or ate, hungrily guzzling every drop of their special formula, making little grunting, growling noises, clinging to my hands and scratching me with their sharp little nails. Then, when they were satisfied, it was underneath the towels for a little nap, only to repeat the same routine about two hours later.
When my “guests” outgrew the nursery, I moved them into a new high-rise, apartment in the basement. Their new home was really a cat condo which Bridget had sent me with instructions to securely place a large cardboard box at the top and a box of tissues on the bottom, which I did, and I watched in total fascination as they gently pulled one tissue at a time out of the box, climbing up the sides of their multi-level home with their little mouths gently holding the Kleenex. When the reached their nest, they vigorously shredded the tissue and then very carefully lined their nest. Pretty soon, as most new homeowners do, they began to remodel their home. At first, they added a new door, then some windows and finally a skylight that got pretty big until they were almost living totally outside. By then they needed a new house, so I found another box and, once again, after they felt comfortable, they proceeded to do the exact same thing. After renovating several cardboard houses, the time had finally come for me to buy them a wooden structure … the harder to chew on with those sharp baby teeth … which was, in reality, a nesting box for a large parrot.
Watching them grow and thrive was fascinating. They didn’t have a mother to teach them and yet they instinctively knew how to do so many things, including burying their nuts underneath all the shredded tissues.
I love my wild-friends to be just that – wild and free – so, difficult as it was for me, I was very careful not to make pets out of them. I purposely did not name them and I resisted the very strong temptation to cuddle them.
Finally, winter was gone, my tulips were in full bloom, and it was time to let the little guys out in the bright spring sunshine. Bridget had already sent me an outdoor release cage that she had especially built for them. I placed a brand new wooden nest box at the top and I furnished their new home with all different kinds and sizes of tree branches so that they could hone up on their climbing skills.
They stayed inside their release cage for two weeks, busily climbing up and down the branches, sometimes falling on their heads and at other times making what I considered amazing jumps. The other squirrels and, of course, my ducks and geese came to visit every day watching, with amazement, the antics of these two clumsy critters. Everyone, human and non, was very interested in who was inside this strange looking contraption. But, mostly, I think, we all enjoyed watching the little guys simply learning to be what they were - wild squirrels.
Finally, the big day came. The day every mother waits for and dreads, all at the same time. So many questions, just like when my boys started school all those years ago. After all the time spent inside, how will they survive? Will they know enough to stay away from predators? Will they know what to eat? Did I do them a service or a disservice? I also worried a lot about how they would fare with my wild squirrels. After all, my grey babies didn’t have a squirrel mom to teach them the ropes.
Well, apparently all my questions were moot. Neither of them wanted to leave. I left the door ajar and quietly went away, hiding just far enough away so that I could see them but they couldn’t see me. They both refused to leave.
My husband, “ogre” that he tries to be, was all for giving them the boot quickly. Not me, I wanted them to slowly adjust to their new surroundings without any unnecessary trauma. Every day I watched as they happily played and frolicked inside the open cage. Finally after about a week, they both ventured outside, but only a foot or two outside the cage and then they ran right back in. I guess just like human babies, they needed their “security blanket”!
Well, so far, this was definitely not going as I had planned, but then I kept telling myself whenever you deal with Mother Nature nothing ever goes as you plan!
Three weeks had now gone by and, at last, my young squirrels were exploring the large tree outside of their cage, but they made so much noise as they haphazardly crashed through the trees that I was sure every predator on Long Island would be after them. Gradually they began to enlarge their perimeters. However, each and every night they came back to their “home” which also meant that each and every night I had to check that they were safely ensconced in their nest box, then shut and lock the release cage door lest some predator attack them inside the cage. This was no easy feat since they had no curfew and when they were cuddled inside their nest box, it was usually so dark that I couldn’t see them. I had to listen for their little annoyed grumps and growls.
As they expanded their territory, I watched with amusement and some amount of trepidation as they constantly returned to my house. For some reason, they just liked climbing up and peering into my living room windows and it always brought a big smile to my face whenever I happened to walk into my living room and saw their happy little faces intently staring in. I just hoped that they weren’t trying to return to their comfy home in the basement. For obvious reasons, I decided not to mention this little aspect of their development to my husband.
Finally, the teenagers became real squirrels, romping all over the yard, silently climbing trees, no longer falling on their heads or making crashing sounds. But suddenly, I noticed that there were no wild squirrels in my yard. I tried to tell my little guys that I buy their peanuts and sunflower seeds in fifty-pound bags … there was always enough to go around … they really didn’t have to chase everyone away … I didn’t raise bullies. Where were their manners!
Eventually, one of my guys went his own way, but the other followed me around all day, tugging on my jeans for his peanuts and, if I didn’t respond immediately, he thought nothing of climbing up my leg, going into my pocket and helping himself to a peanut. I named him "Fatso" because he ate so many peanuts that he actually had little roles of fat, something quite unusual for my agile little friends. Of course, I could never leave my house without peanuts in my pockets. In fact, whenever I was in my garden, I had the distinct feeling that mischievous brown eyes were constantly watching my every move and, sure enough within minutes, my little gray friend would appear, begging, so pathetically, with his hand over his heart. As the weather grew colder, I began to wear a light sweatshirt jacket ... of course, one with squirrels on it ... and Fatso quickly ascertained that I now kept his peanuts in that jacket and if I dared to take it off, he'd find it no matter where and just reach into the pockets and help himself. He even made himself an old-fashioned pocket-door entrance.
Whenever I took Gypsy, my blue merle collie, for a walk to the ferries, Fatso would follow overhead on the utility wires. On one of these walks, my husband, "doubting Thomas" that he is, refused to believe that the squirrel tagging along and doing daredevil tricks on the highwire above was indeed Fatso. All I had to do was put my hand in my pocket and, lo and behold, much to the "doubter's" chagrin, down raced my furry little fat friend for his treat.
We spent many late summer afternoons sitting on my stone garden bench, talking and just enjoying each other’s company. He ate so many peanuts that, at times, I could almost swear he had a green tinge, but, I knew that he was storing up fat for the winter and at the rate he was going, he wouldn’t have to leave his winter nest too often!
For almost three years, I had the distinct pleasure of Fatso’s company and when, one spring day, he came no more, I felt as if I’d lost my best friend … but, as my tears silently fell, they were softened by the beautiful memories of the special bond I shared with my little grey “wild-friend”.
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