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Giving baby squirrels and other injured wildlife a second chance

A volunteer at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., feeds a baby squirrel with formula. The center helps rehabilitate animals that are injured or orphaned.
Jacob Fenston
A volunteer at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., feeds a baby squirrel with formula. The center helps rehabilitate animals that are injured or orphaned.

In a nondescript warehouse in Washington, D.C., wedged between a community garden and the Metro train tracks, more than a dozen baby squirrels fill cages in an uncomfortably warm room. A noise machine pumps out forest sounds under the fluorescent lights.

Some squirrels nap in hammocks, cuddled up in furry piles. Others cling to the cages' wire, peering out.

Right now, it's baby squirrel season in much of the country. Spring is when many wild animals start having their offspring, which means it's a busy time for the people charged with rehabilitating animals that are injured or orphaned.

Animal care staffers here at the nonprofit City Wildlife spend much of their time these days hand-feeding baby squirrels.

"We could tell them apart because we paint their ears different colors," says Alessandra Flores, one of the staffers here. She reaches into a cage to grab a squirrel with ears painted pink. Then she holds the animal with one hand while offering it a tiny syringe with a soft nipple on the end, filled with specially formulated squirrel formula.

Some of the animals arrived here after falling from their nests, others were abandoned by mom. Others come in hit by cars.

Julie Edwards, a volunteer at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., hand feeds one of the baby squirrels.
Jacob Fenston / Jacob Fenston
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Jacob Fenston
Julie Edwards, a volunteer at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., hand feeds one of the baby squirrels.

Squirrels are among the most common wild mammals in North America, so one might ask, why bother? It's not as if the eastern gray squirrel is going extinct any time soon.

"Some people say it's a waste of time on squirrels," says Jim Monsma, executive director of City Wildlife. But he says it's not just about wild animals — it's also about people. The act of saving a tiny, helpless squirrel, he says, generates compassion.

"It's not like you're born with a finite amount of compassion — once you use it up, that's it, you're a jerk. It's not like that. The more compassionate stuff you do, the more kind you become," Monsma says.

There are wildlife rehabilitation centers like this across the country. They take in all sorts of creatures in need, from turtles with broken shells to bald eagles with lead poisoning.

These centers are often powered by volunteers, like Julie Edwards. On this day, she's wrangling a rambunctious squirrel. His cage has a red label: "escape risk."

"They all have personalities," says Edwards, holding the squirrel. "This guy's a little crazy."

Edwards started volunteering at a rescue center in Houston, Texas. Her husband didn't want her to volunteer at the animal shelter there helping dogs and cats.

"He said I would take everything home," Edwards says. "But at the wildlife center, you can't take it home, so that was fine."

In the midst of the midday feeding session, a new patient comes in — the 16th baby squirrel currently at the center. He's all black and seems terrified, and maybe malnourished.

"I'm assuming someone found him on the sidewalk or something. He is pretty thin," says staffer Flores.

The goal is to get the squirrels healthy and big enough they can be released back into the wilds of the city and surrounding suburbs.

Monsma says the vast majority of animals that come in are here because of how we've built our urban areas.

"We have changed our environment to make life very pleasant and efficient and comfortable for us," he says. Things like roads, cars, lawns, and lawnmowers make life easier for people, but much tougher for wild animals.

"Every day is an obstacle course with fatal consequences, potentially, for any slip up. So the victims pile up, and that's why we're here."

As spring turns to summer, there will be even more victims: after baby squirrel season, the baby rabbits start coming in, then the ducklings, then mourning doves. By next fall, staff here will have rescued hundreds of urban animals.

If you find an injured or abandoned squirrel or other wild animal, you can find a local rehabilitator in your area, plus other information on rescuing wildlife, from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jacob Fenston