“Heart of my heart,
Soul of my soul,
The reason that I am a licensed wildlife rehabilitator can be summed up in one word: Sunny.
On Labor Day, 1999, a baby squirrel was discovered wandering, apparently abandoned, right here in front of my house. From the accounts provided, she’d been in my next-door neighbors’ front yard most of the day, but by late afternoon they realized she was in trouble and called over the fence to me to see if I would help.
Perhaps five and half-weeks old, so bright-eyed but far from being weaned, the moment I scooped up that tiny bundle it was all over but the shouting. Sunny’s first gesture was to touch her nose to mine and so she entered both my life and the very core of my heart…for good. Of course, I didn’t know at the time she would end up being non-releaseable; on that warm late summer holiday afternoon all I knew was that she had a boatload of fleas, a few fly eggs on her head, and some very large, bald, odd-looking tumors. None of which indicated anything except she needed help. Now.
Back then I knew almost next to nothing about squirrels, but I did know those fleas had to go and furred is furred so Sunny was first given a warm flea bath. She tolerated it and then allowed me to comb off the fly eggs; her reward was to lap at emergency rations of cream-flavored water from an eyedropped – manna from heaven for such a tiny one who’d not had anything to eat or drink at least that whole day. When we finished, I took her thoroughly-towel-dried wee Self out onto the front porch, where she sprawled contentedly on my knee in the last of the sun’s bright and soothing rays.
It turns out that Sunny was suffering from squirrel fibroma, a viral infection commonly called “squirrel pox”. Variations of the virus exist in several wild species, notably cottontail rabbits and deer. I’ve since learned it’s not common and, like any virus, overcoming it is a crapshoot. I was fortunate enough to quickly connect with one of the finest squirrel rehabilitators in the country, since become a dear friend. She guided me through those first months of care and treatment and Sunny…well, Sunny had already thrown her tiny Self heart-first into our relationship and promptly became the centerpiece and poster child for my work, and one of my greatest teachers about All Things Squirrel.
We had a good run together, my beloved familiar and I. A total ham, she grew up in the spotlight of my camera’s flash, more often than not mugging shamelessly as if to prove some point about nuts and squirrels. It was a little suprising then that she took all the various guests and other residents in stride; indeed, they did not even exist as far as she was concerned. In her mind, there had always been and would never be anything except the world that belonged to she and I and she harbored no doubt that the main spotlight was hers and hers alone. To the end, early mornings most often found us sitting quietly together; similar to the way baby squirrels snuggle down after a feeding. Sunny would sigh, nap lightly, and as the daylight became earnest, finally groom. More often than not, grooming me with the most gentle of scrapes with those razor-sharp teeth accompanied by thorough washings with her velvet-soft, pink tongue.
And all the while, for almost 9 years and to this day, I have never ceased to marvel at the sheer magnitude of the bond that allowed for such trust. For Sunny was, despite any appearance to the contrary, a wild animal. She retained all her instincts, filled to overflowing with all the grace and wisdom Nature has endowed those who live their lives unencumbered by human interference. And yet she chose…this. A life lived with a human.
I look at our situation with not only awe, but with the greatest respect. It is a rare, rare thing, this love affair we shared. Singular and unique; the years since Sunny’s arrival, filled with so many squirrels both old and young, proved it as could nothing else. For while there are bonds and while there is love between “mothers and children”, even when mothers are foster and the children a different species, this particular connection with Sunny has never manifested since. According to the Old Ways, this is the relationship one has with one’s familiar.
As such, Sunny opened my eyes to so many things. She brought out the best in me, giving me lessons in patience, in priorities. My initial documentation of her growing up has blossomed into a far-reaching and most satisfying career. She allowed not only me, but people all around the world, a glimpse into the Inner Sanctum Of The Wilds, opening eyes and touching innumerable hearts. To Sunny I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude for being the best teacher I could possibly have had. And so, too, do so many squirrels, now numbered in generations, owe her their second chance to live.
Sunny took her leave of this Earthly realm the evening of July 17, 2008. She had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer after removal of a vulvar tumor in late May but until the end she remained as bright, determined and gently loving as the first day we met. In the symbolism of having come full circle, at the last, as I held her close, I touched my nose to hers and quietly, oh-so-quietly, she was gone. But she remains at the very core of my heart…forever.