Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Warm memories of a cold winter night


8.pm. I get a call from Sona announcing that we might have got a new pet.

Apparently, Shikhar and she were returning home when they saw, what looked like two from a litter of rats in the parking. Even before they could look at them closely, a cat ran past and grabbed one of them.

They tried shooing it away but couldn’t stop it. Without a second thought they picked up the remaining one. To realize that it was a baby squirrel, just a few days old. So tiny and fragile that it fitted in the palm of Shikhars hand with a little space to spare!

In the next two hours that it took me to get home, the following had happened:

- A call from Sona to the vet with detailed description to get a fix on how old it probably was, and what it could be fed.
- A detailed check on the net (this was Shikhar) to find out whether squirrel communities (like sparrows) desert their own if a human has touched them, how to keep it warm et al

When I got home, the baby was the centre of attention, or rather feeding it was. Sona was there, concentrating hard, spectacles on the ridge of her nose, one strand of hair across her forehead that she did not have the wherewithal to put in place. She was trying her best to coax the baby to drink drops of milk from a disposable syringe that had been turned into a makeshift milk bottle, while softly talking to it.

Alongside, a rather animated Shikhar was trying to tell me the long play version of his recently found squirrel knowledge and its application all at once and in the same breath.

The outer carton of my mobile phone (hope they kept the spare cords, manual & installation cd somewhere accessible) had now become a temporary home for the little one. Lined with a piece of an old cotton t-shirt worn out and soft.

My suggestion that an old sock could make a cozy sleeping arrangement was summarily dropped (‘avoid lining the box with synthetic fabric, their nails get entangled and since they burrow their heads to keep themselves warm the baby might even suffocate’ advised Shikhar)

The little one kept making sounds, probably missing the mother; the only way it would stop was when one of us nestled it in our palms. That warmth was something it was not ready to give up in a hurry. Any attempts to keep it back in the box would result in furious to pleading yelps and huge effort to cling on.

If we got it into the box, it would get frantic and try to crawl out, which was worrying, as we would not know where it would crawl at night.

After some fast thinking, and failing to find any shoe boxes (I can remember umpteen times when we had more shoe boxes than we wanted, here we needed one desperately and sure enough there wasn’t one in sight) , we hit upon the ideal solution. One that would be cozy, yet allow enough air, open yet something that would keep it from coming out, the old betel nut box that was shaped like the Beetle car.

And that was how it went to sleep that day, in the old car placed against the side of the bedside lamp.
We discovered the next morning that separately, all three of us had checked on the baby more than once in the night.

After another milk drinking session the next morning, we were ready. The vet had told us that the mother would be looking for the babies, and if we took the baby within earshot then she would probably come hearing its cries.

We began from 8 in the morning, kept the box in the sun, in Shikhars balcony, which usually is the thoroughfare for a whole colony of squirrels. It is a narrow balcony and to check on them, you need to lean out and crane your neck up. This levels your view to the exterior sandtex wall of the building. Once you are positioned in this fashion, you can see scores of squirrels rushing past on the wall. It can make you a little dizzy (it is just like getting on the ground at eye level to look for a fallen ear stud, except that this is vertical and you are leaning at an angle on a one foot ledge looking at a wall that extends 9 floors, and you are on the 5th)

At first look the thoroughfare was empty, no sign of a single squirrel. An hour later we tried again thinking that winter would mean the squirrels would set out once the sun came out good and proper. Sure enough there were about a dozen of them scurrying along squealing fast in the usual staccato high pitch.

The baby too took notice and started to squeal, first slowly, and then as the chatter increased it got louder. While they would make quick turns and look into the ledge, they did not venture ahead, probably because we were hovering around.

We retreated, to allow for the squirrels to become braver, yet apprehensive that they would harm the little one. At a few minutes interval, we’d check to see if the baby was still there. There was a minor distraction, someone at the door, which took us a few minutes to sort out.

Back for the check and the box was empty.

The baby must have been reclaimed by the mom or the other squirrels. Hopefully it would have clung as hard to the mom as she was rushing across the wall.

The squirrel baby spent a little more than 12 hours with us. Hopefully it is well and growing, safely amongst its own.

All we’ve got is some warm memories of a cold winter night and four photographs of the baby in the morning. I took these placing the box on the swing, since I did not want to stun the little one using the flash.

Here’s one of her yawning in the morning.

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