Squirrel mating season has started and already volunteers at the Squirrel Rescue and Rehab Western Cape have their hands full with squirrel babies needing to be rescued, raised and rehabilitated back into their habitat.
Squirrel babies, called kits or kittens, come to the group in various ways – from tree fellers to farm workers, school children and Facebook users.
“We just got in our first little kit for the season, picked up in Houtbay and taken to a volunteer in Fishhoek,” says codirector Lize Testa from Brackenfell.
“The majority of the group’s rescuers are in the Western Cape, but that doesn’t prevent squirrel lovers all over the world from asking for guidance. The group has assisted rescuers of other types of squirrels all over South Africa and even as far as Botswana and Sri Lanka.
“Some squirrel finders need a little more convincing to surrender the kits they find. Most finders have the best intentions when they find a squirrel and decide to raise it, but it often ends in heartache and tears,” she says.
This, as squirrels aspirate very easily and need the right formula at the right times in order to grow.
“Rescues also come in the form of pets that can no longer be handled. Squirrels make terrible pets. As they grow up, they become extremely possessive, and you’ll probably be the only person who can handle your squirrel.
“You won’t be able to spend time with family or friends or go away for a weekend when you’re owned by a squirrel. They chew, scratch and often even bite.”
In addition squirrel diets are rather expensive, and squirrel vets are even more expensive.
She says they need to be kept in large enclosures due to their high energy levels’ - enough space for them to jump and play safely.
“There are few things as sad as seeing a squirrel in a cage. While it’s not illegal to keep Eastern Grey Squirrels as pets in South Africa, no wild animal should be kept in captivity.”
When kits are between 12 and 16 weeks old, they’re ready to be rehabilitated. This involves them first getting “wild” in a wilding cage, with minimal human interaction. Then they are slowly released into an area where they’ll be safe and where they won’t be a nuisance to humans.
The rehab was founded in 2011 by Tracy Starke.
“She started her exciting squirrel journey in January that year when she raised her first squirrel. With the help of Dr Steve Smit and Dee Hazel, who have been doing squirrel rescue for close to 25 years, Tracy has rescued and rehabilitated countless squirrels,” says Testa.
Tracy Boddy joined Starke in 2015, and in April 2016 they decided to start a more formal group on Facebook and WhatsApp: Squirrel Rescue & Rehab Western Cape. The organisation is currently in the process of registering as a non-profit organisation. Training sessions on how to become involved are offered twice a year.
Even though volunteers make the work lighter, the bills still need to be paid.
Raising squirrels are costly. To raise a healthy four-week-old squirrel to release costs approximately R1 000.
A tin of milk ranges between R250 and R350. Once they start to eat, squirrels need special rat pellets, fresh fruit and veggies and, of course, a few nuts for treats. Very few vets can assist with squirrels, and when a squirrel requires medical attention, they end up at vets who specialise in exotic animals.
The group relies on donations from volunteers and the public to pay these bills.
Donations are always welcome. This includes: cash donations, milk (Royal Canin Puppy Milk), pet carriers and cages, large cages or aviaries, welded mesh for cages that needs to be fixed, fleece blankets and raw nuts.
What to do when you find a squirrel
Squirrel kits are often found bleeding with open wounds or broken bones, having been in a cat or dog’s mouth. Sometimes they are covered with maggots or are cold, wet and crying non-stop.
“Put the baby in an area with low noise level, inside a dark box or container with air holes. Be sure to add a fleecy blanket for warmth. Do not offer the kit any food or water but immediately WhatsApp 082 960 4859, with a photo of the baby and your location to be put in contact with your closest rehabilitator.
If the squirrel has a fluffed-out tail, like a bottle brush, and a body longer than 15 cm, excluding the tail, and approaches humans or pets, it is likely a juvenile squirrel.
In such cases you do not need to intervene as even at the young age of 10 to 12 weeks, the squirrel is independent.
“If the squirrel is approaching humans or pets, try to scare it by making loud noises when it comes near.
If you find an unharmed infant squirrel, you need to guide the healthy baby back to its mother.
This can be done by placing the baby in an open container, with uncooked rice or bird seed wrapped in a sock and warmed in the microwave.
“Wrap the sock in a soft towel and place it next to the baby. Remember, do not give the baby any food or water.
“You can also return the squirrel to its nesting tree. This should be a tree in the immediate area where the squirrel was found. If you don’t know which tree the squirrel’s nest is in, or if the nest was destroyed, then choose a tree closest to where the squirrel was found. Squirrel nests can either be in tree cavities, or in ‘dreys’ - the big balls of dried leaves at the tops of trees.”
If the baby’s eyes are open, you can place the baby on the tree trunk to encourage it to climb.
If it does not climb, place the squirrel in the container and attach the open container to the tree. If the baby’s eyes are closed, attach the open container to the tree.
“It is important to keep children, dogs, and cats out of the area, while observing the baby squirrel for the next six to eight hours of daylight to check that the mother has returned to retrieve her baby. Reheat the rice/birdseed bag every two hours.”
If not, call 082 960 4859 to locate your closest rehabilitator.
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