My Wild Pet Ground Squirrel
No, he wasn't a pocket mouse. He was a baby ground squirrel. Well, come to think of it, I'm not even sure Joe was a he ... he might have been Josephine, but I know he came from the wild and did fit in my shirt pocket.
That summer when I was ten, we finished a camping vacation with a few days of fishing at a High Sierra meadow. I have no idea how my parents had originally found this bit of unspoiled paradise, but we went there for several years in a row.
It was at end of a long, steep, winding boulder strewn road, which turned into a winding rutted dirt road, and across a narrow wooden bridge that was barely wider than our small travel trailer. To me it seemed a scary trip, but once across that bridge, it was mountain heaven.
Rugged peaks in the distance cradled perpetual snow patches between the treeless, rock covered slopes.
At lower levels, tall pines, and grey granite conglomerations of boulders surrounded the meadow of tough green grass where we camped.
A gushing creek spread out into a placid pond in front of the meadow. The creek pond was the apparent playground of wild trout that jumped with a joy that inspires a fisherman's dreams.
After the trailer was set and the canvas extensions pitched, my dad was off to catch the joyful trout. I was focused on the ground squirrels.
Apparently we had arrived on just the right early spring day. The babies were experiencing their first outing from the underground tunnels.
We had seen the appealing whistling rodents on other summer trips to this place, but we were earlier this year. This was a first outing for the babies which were less than half the size of of the adults we were used to seeing. They popped in and out of the burrow with eye-blinking speed.
I was determined to have one of my own.
The Net Strategy
I convinced Dad to loan me his fishing net, and stationed myself near the dugout burrow where we had seen the babies. Lying on my stomach I waited patiently and saw the little critters pop their noses up and down. I needed to be more still, more patient, and more in the right place to make sure the net would come down to trap a baby.
Waiting.... waiting.. waiting... YES! Wham! I missed. They are very fast.
I adjusted my position so I would come closer next time. If.... they would come out again.
In three more hours, I missed twice. Learning from each mistake, I had scooted closer, adjusted my net trajectory, calculated the angle, adjusted the most effective use of timing and patience vs. reaction.
Finally, after a very long interval, a curious, just-too-cute pup popped up. In quick cautious jolts he ventured forward away from the burrow. I waited for him to venture into the range of my fishnet trap. WHAM! Yes! He was under the net! . At least for half a second he was. The mesh was too large and he quickly escaped through a hole, and disappeared back down the home burrow.
Joe and the Sissy Houscat
Three hours wasted. My muscles were cramped and sore. But it was still an hour to lunchtime.
The net wasn't going to work. I needed a new strategy.
Inching closer to the burrow, I positioned myself so my hand was next to the hole, thumb on the lower side and fingers curling around the right perimeter. There was no hope in anything less than the direct approach.
I waited. My arms ached, my legs cramped, my back hurt, there was a rock poking into my ribs. I needed to go potty.
I tried not to move, barely breathed, kept my eyes focused on the hole for an interminably long time. I knew I had set the world record for not moving -- for a ten-year old. Finally Joe popped up to take a look.
GOT HIM ! !
I stood up, trying not to grasp him too firmly. I'm not sure which of us was more surprised. He didn't seem to struggle much, but looked at me with glistening brown eyes and a little smile--or so I thought.
Thinking back on it, I'm surprised he didn't bite me. Apparently, neither of us thought about that possibility.
I jumped up, cupping him in my two hands and ran back to the trailer, yelling, "I got one! I got one! " I think my mom was as surprised as the squirrel.
Joe was a pet for several years. Being innocent and having not learned the ways of the wild (the forest equivalent of 'street smarts') he was very tame and docile. We fed him milk or water from a doll's baby bottle, and provided him with hamster feed. The newspaper people came out to take pictures of him drinking from the bottle with our cat looking on. When he got a bit bigger he especially liked grapes which he would hold in his forepaws and eat like a big juicy melon. Also he could stuff a grape into each cheek pouch and make us laugh by looking silly.
He would sit on my desk munching sunflower seeds or grooming his tiny feet and fuzzy belly, while I did my homework. He liked being scratched behind the ears, and seemed to enjoy being held by people, petted and scratched.
He and our big sissy house-cat would take turns chasing each other around the house. If the cat got too rough, Joe would bite his paw and the cat would run, chased by the rodent.
He liked to sleep curled up in my shirt pocket-- though we did make him a comfortable outside cage where he made his bed in a suspended wool sock. He drank from a hamster water bottle. Every morning Joe would make his bed by pulling out the shreds of yarn and cloth we had given him for comfort, roll it into a neat ball holding it in his mouth, then climb up to the hanging sock and and stuff the bedding neatly into his ersatz burrow.
Like most stories of well -loved pets-- this one eventually came to a tragic end. I think we had him for almost four years , and one might say it was perhaps longer than he might have survived in the wild. He was very happy, fat and healthy, not battle-scarred and skinny like some of the wild ones we had seen.
His short tan fur was smooth and shiny, his eyes dark and sparkling. His cheerful little chirps and fearless acceptance of his surroundings seemed to say he was perfectly happy. But we probably contributed to his demise as well. He was not lean, mean and wary like the wild ground squirrels.
Joe got out of his cage somehow and disappeared one day. Mom said he probably wanted his freedom, or perhaps he got lost. I was hopeful that he would return, but a few days later Mom knew he wouldn't. She didn't tell me for years-- and it was better that she didn't-- but Joe and probably encountered a neighborhood cat who was NOT our friendly sissy-cat. He had not learned the healthy fear that his kind would have taught him in the wild.
This is only one of the reasons that wild animals should not be pets. My next hub will tell about why wild animals should remain wild.