SQUIRREL IN THE HOUSE
Barely 6 inches long, with a striped body, beady eyes, pointed nose and a bushy tail, squirrels are fascinating to watch. And if you have been as lucky as I have to rear one for nearly two years, you will become a slave to their impish charm. Every tree abounds with squirrels. Jumping, leaping, hanging upside down, spiralling madly up and down and sometimes startling you by landing at your feet – a missed jump? – their movements are a trapeze artist’s envy. Personal care is an important occupation. Every microinch of the body comes in for a thorough scratching and licking. Parts beyond the reach of the tongue are cleaned by licking a paw and using it to wipe the elusive spot. It is pure entertainment to watch how the tiny little chest is cleaned. From trapeze artist to clown their transformation is complete. The toiletries end with a quick brush of the tail. Squirrel watching can keep us amused for hours. I have seen old and young avidly follow their antics with chuckles and hoots of laughter.
Squirrels build untidy nests (curtains and carpets being the preferred material), precariously balanced in the fork of a branch. Not surprisingly, they are knocked down to the ground – with their squirming contents – when a strong wind or curious intruder nudges them. Finders generally attempt to raise the little ones using ink fillers and cotton soaked in milk to feed them. Some squirrels are quite domesticated and bold enough to enter homes and accept food from our fingers. But the slightest sound or movement sends them scurrying away. My great grandmother had a great fondness for all animals. I have heard my grandmother recount how she had tied a string of beads around the neck of one of her frequent friends, for easy identification. How she managed to do it still remains a mystery to me.
My first encounter with baby squirrels happened a long time ago while still at school. My mother had rescued three of them and placed them in a shoebox, nestled in soft cotton. But unfortunately, the milk we fed them did not agree with them and they all died.
I continued to be captivated by these furry little creatures and watched them whenever and wherever I could. Those were the days when there were trees aplenty and enough time during holidays and after homework to just “stand and gaze”. Only much later, while in colleges did I get another opportunity to raise a squirrel. Our college campus had a wealth of trees and baby squirrels falling out of trees was commonplace. But luckily my classmate Raji rescued one. Being in the hostel, Raji could not keep the squirrel and I offered to become the surrogate mother.
The new arrival was welcomed at home and my mother in her enthusiasm named the squirrel Rama so carried away was she by the tales of Rama and his squirrel helpers. We kept Rama in a wire basket and watched him go round in dizzy circles until he fell asleep in the pile of cloth at the bottom. Rama was not a helpless infant but grown enough to feed on his own. Milk, which he sipped delicately from a plate with his tiny pink tongue, fruits and nuts were his favourite food.
I used to release him at first for short intervals and later for much longer periods from his cage. He was very happy running and leaping on the furniture and all over us as well. The trust with which he sat on my shoulder or nestled in my clothes was extremely touching. Rama kept us entertained and was the center of attraction when visitors called. He would snatch up tiny morsels of food, go sit at a height and crunch his way through it.
And then one day, Rama escaped into the trees and my world nearly came to an end. I thought I would never see him again. But I was more afraid for him as he was not used to being on his own. That night I went to bed in a sad state of mind. Frantic-scratching sounds woke me. I switched on the light to meet Rama’s beady-eyed stare from the top of the cupboard. Rama had come home for the night!
A new routine began for Rama. He went in and out of the house at will, returning home when hungry, sleepy or both. We got used to him jumping on us while asleep or reading. He would appear at the window of the room where he heard voices. During the day we would catch sight of him on one of our many trees, and would call out or whistle to him. Rama would promptly stop and stare. Sometimes he would come in on being called. But he never failed to return home at night. “Has Rama come home?” became the automatic question when one came home in the late evening.
Rama was now expanding his taste for food. He wandered over the dining table tasting scraps of food dropped by the plate. Much to our astonishment, scrambled eggs and fish became his favourite food. Sometimes he would make a quick snatch from the edge of the plate. Karaboondhi was another hit. He would pick up individual boondhis hold it between his paws and munch it with relish.
The biggest surprise of all came when Rama was about six months old. Rama began to build a nest. It dawned on us that Ramya would have been a more appropriate name. But Rama came in for no name change. The nest building progressed in a haphazard manner. The spot chosen was one where birds and other squirrels had nested earlier. It was in the living room, above the telephone where there was a niche created by our antique wiring. It could easily accommodate the nest and being next to a window, it was easily accessible. Rama persevered in her task of bringing scraps of material and coir rolled up in a tight bundle held between her teeth. She then took it up to the nest and spent some time there. I presumed she must have been flattening it into a semblance of a bed. To save her so many trips up and down we began to offer her bits of cloth to take up. This was the first of many such nests she was going to build in and around the house. Like clockwork, every three months she began her nest building activity. It was a different spot each time: table draws, electricity boxes, tops of cupboards were all made use of. She never built a nest in the trees. In course of time we realized missing socks and my grandmother’s soft white blouses had found their way into her nest. We would eventually find them when the nest was abandoned.
Rama was not a very good parent when it came to protecting her babies. She would absent herself from the nest for hours. Once the young ones began to move, it was the combined duty of my grandparents, parents and myself to keep vigil. Despite our efforts they would stray out and get snatched up by the ever watchful crows. Hardly one and mostly none would survive from each litter. This is perhaps nature’s way of controlling the prolific squirrel population.
Rama endeared herself to us in many ways. She would open boxes with dexterity. She got her front teeth in the gap between the lid and the box and jerked the lid off. The din of a stainless steel lid hitting the floor alerted us that Rama was hunting for food. My grandmother used to read the newspaper after lunch seated in her favourite chair. As this chair was en route to Rama’s nest, she would urge my grandmother with a gentle nip to get up from there.
Only one of Rama’s countless offspring continued to live with her. He ( we had got it right this time) was a bossy fellow who would snatch the food from his mother with a slap to her face. There was however one peculiarity of Rama (and other squirrels) which I could not quite fathom. It is the frenzied shrieking fits they get into. I heard it once after Rama lost an offspring. But I also witnessed it many times for no understandable reason. Loud noises like the cracking of a branch or a tyre burst also seem to set it off!
Rama lived with us for nearly two years. It was at the time of my grandmother’s demise that she went missing. We will never know how or why. The house was full of people and she was probably scared off by the crowd. I was not always there when she came for her food. Besides, it was at the same time a cat moved in with us. For a long time afterwards, I used to look longingly at the many squirrels in our garden. I would call and whistle, hoping one would stop and listen. I even imagined some did. But Rama never came back. A tiny part of the wilderness had deigned to share her life with us for a brief period and we were the richer for it.
A few years ago a squirrel began to visit our dining room, picking up crumbs from the floor. We would sit absolutely still trying not to disturb it. It became bolder, jumping on to the chair and even taking food from our fingers. But it never ventured further and soon stopped coming. I still enjoy the sight of a squirrel and the tamarind tree in front of my window is a haven for squirrels. Even as I type this, I can see a squirrel at its toilet, with a twitch of its tail another has just vanished out of sight and one more is in hot chase of an intruder.
Eco News, Vol 9, No 2, July to September, 2003.