Back in mid October, a week of spring-like weather settled into our area. As a result, a tornado hit town on a Sunday evening. The days that followed brought more storms and rain. It was good to see our rehabilitated deer return each evening, and also find our Rainy Day Punkin on the back porch each morning. I marveled at how adaptive and resilient wildlife could be in the threat and aftermath of inclement weather.
The Friday after the tornado hit, the last of the heavy rains finally moved off to the east, and a beautiful sunny day ensued. Punkin showed up early that day for her pecans. She was enjoying being solo again after having raised some babies in late summer, and visited our back porch often, looking for pecans and fruit or vegetables. It is important for all mammals to put on weight to carry them through winter and, for a mama squirrel who had been lactating and keeping up with young, it was imperative to gain weight and prepare for the cold months ahead. I also noted that Punkin had been very busy gnawing on deer skulls and antlers lately. Sharpening teeth and deriving mineral from the bones and antlers is important to many species. Of course begging (and receiving) pecans is the main reason Punkin visited our back porch so often.
That afternoon as I was finishing piling up branches and doing some cleanup from the tornado, I saw Punkin on the north side of the house where she was gathering a few acorns from beneath a young oak tree. I always marveled at how busy she kept this time of year. Back in the house, I started dinner and filled the kitchen sink with water to soak a few items. I did not return to the sink until much later when dinner was finished and I was preparing to clean up dishes.
Through the window above the kitchen sink, I could see a squirrel under the oak tree. It was moving around strangely, and something about it did not look as it should. So I went out to investigate, only to find the squirrel doing an awkward combat crawl through the chain-link fence and into our neighbor’s backyard. I tried to get a better look to see if it was Punkin, but it was getting dark and when I tried to reach over, the squirrel escaped me and made a valiant climb up a nearby tree. It was evident it took a lot of effort for the squirrel to climb the tree. I hoped it was not Punkin.
The next morning, I walked back over to the tree and there at its base was the squirrel, looking even more troubled than the day before. I took a box and gloves with me and walked around the fence to where the squirrel was in my neighbor’s back yard. After trying to slink away a couple of times, I managed to catch the squirrel and set up some cozy digs for it in our old squirrel cage. Sadly, I could see it was our Punkin. I did not see any sign of an attack from a predator and there were no symptoms of anything toxic like poison or an infection.
Safe and sound in the squirrel cage, Punkin breathed very slowly and moved under some leaves and wood I had placed in the cage with her. There, she tucked her head under her tail and rested most of the afternoon. Late in the day, I noticed her gnawing at a stick, so I ran to fetch a pecan for her. I took off part of the shell and sure enough, she nibbled a bit on the exposed nutmeat.
When I checked on Punkin an hour later, I found that she had passed away. I gently examined her body in hopes of finding some kind of reason for her death, but nothing was evident. She was seven years old, which is a long life for a squirrel. I wondered if she had suffered a stroke, or succumbed to some other condition common in squirrels, like kidney or liver problems.
I am sad, of course, but also thankful that I found Punkin and could provide her comfort in her last hours. And I am grateful for the seven years we were able to watch her grow and go on to be a mother many times. We were fortunate to observe her ways and habits, and enjoy her delightful entertainment. It does help me deal with my grief, to have closure for once in this work we do with wildlife rehabilitation. Punkin was not like the other squirrels and deer we have rehabilitated, who have just disappeared into the woods, never to return. She lived in the wild, but chose to set up digs nearby, where she could safely raise her young, and depend on having a fairly-easy-to-acquire and virtually endless supply of food from “her people” if need be.
I thought it fitting that Forrest chose her final resting place beneath a pecan tree in our little pet cemetery. I put the pecan she last gnawed on in the tiny box we buried her in… and I placed a second pecan in there too. You know, just “one more for the road” as they say.
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