Helping pet squirrels become wild again
Baby squirrels are the sweetest and cutest things you have probably ever seen. They are so gentle, cuddly and adorable as babies. It's basic human instinct to want to care for such a cute little baby. It's also lots of fun to play with them as babies just like it's fun to play with puppies and kittens. The only problem is when these babies get older, they are not as tame as dogs and cats which have been bred for tameness for centuries. These babies are wild animals with wild instincts. They have been bred to be wild, the opposite of tame, for their own survival.
When squirrels are only six weeks old, it's cute when they climb up your pant leg, sit on your shoulder, wrestle with your hand, try to nibble on your ear lobe. When they are six months old it's a completely different story. Their gentle nibbles turn to painful bites when their teeth are fully grown. When they climb up your pant leg they can leave you bleeding with their now long and sharp claws. They are very smart and need a lot of attention. If you don't give them what they want, they will bite and scratch you because they had no mom to teach them manners. When they become sexually mature they can become even more aggressive, possessive and jealous. They will attack everyone except the main caregiver or maybe even just everyone. This is the time when people generally send them packing by throwing them out the back door. They've had their fun with the cute baby but do not like the wild adult they have become. This is a sure death sentence for them. They will also instantly become a menace to yourself and your neighbors when they get mad and try to physically demand attention. An unsuspecting person will try to kill a squirrel that jumps on him and bites him.
When they are babies, they have not yet been taught how to properly fear humans and pets so of course they will crave your loving attention. They must fear humans and pets for their own protection and survival. They also must learn how to socialize, communicate and relate to other squirrels or they will be killed by the dominant squirrel in the territory. They must know how to run from cats and dogs so they won't be attacked. They must know not to climb up strangers legs begging for food because that stranger may kill them out of fear. They must learn how to build a nest in a tree and not in someone's attic or on the ground or they will be killed. They must learn how to forage for food on their own or they may starve without handouts.
First and foremost, the best thing to do for the squirrel, rehabber and finder, is to turn over a baby squirrel to a licensed rehabber as soon as possible. It is incredibly stressful and confusing for the squirrel to go from being a pet to being wild. He would be much happier and better adjusted if he were raised to be wild from the beginning. Of course if you are reading this, you didn't get the baby to a rehabber and now you have a wild maturing squirrel on your hands. Below I shall outline the process that I use to get pet squirrels wild and ready for release back to nature. I have had to do this quite a few times each season because people either had no idea how wild adult squirrels can get or they just wanted to have their fun with the baby then toss him outside if/WHEN he gets mean.
1. Start to wean the squirrel off human contact. You can't just stop playing with the squirrel instantly and throw him outside. He will be frightened, confused, angry, sad, stressed out and ill equipped to deal with other squirrels and nature. I start by putting him in a large indoor cage at least 2'x2'x4' tall. I will let him come out and hang out with me for a couple of hours a day. Make sure the room is baby proof. You don't want him chewing on wires, falling out screen windows... If you don't have a safe room, you will need a bigger cage, 3'x3'x6'. I will play with him and love him in the same manner he was cared for before. Each day I spend less and less time with him. If he starts pacing, loses weight, exhibits self destructive behavior, chews on the cage bars, pulls or scratches his fur out or stops eating, I will play with him a little more and wean him more slowly.
2. Give him lots of fun things to do. I give them tons of toys, great things to eat and a stuffed animal so he can wrestle with it. Parrot toys, ferret toys, hammocks, hanging toys, wood to chew on, nesting material, a regular squirrel nest box, real tree branches, lots of levels in his cage, pine cones, acorns... Of course, nutrition is also very important. He needs proper nutrition so he can feel good physically and psychologically. I will give 50% rodent blocks then fruits, vegetables and a few nuts and seeds after they've eaten their meals. They need to have a nice glossy coat, shiny eyes and well developed musculature. Your squirrel needs to be climbing up and down the cage, hanging upside down, climbing upside down and jumping.
3. Make sure he is around other squirrels. I will have other squirrels in cages right next to him so he can hear, see and smell other squirrels. He will get used to other squirrels and hopefully eventually realize that he is also a squirrel and not a human baby. If he is young enough, say 4 months of age, I will place a younger extremely laid back squirrel in with him. I start off by having the squirrel in a cage directly next to his cage for a few days. I of course sit there and watch them like a hawk so no one gets hurt. Sometimes I will have to put him and the other squirrel both into another cage at the same time so they don't have territory issues. If they can get along, I leave them together. If they try to hurt each other, I separate them back into side by side cages. If they're 4 months or younger, this generally works. Then the more wild squirrel will teach the tame one social skills, how to build a nest and how to play. I can then just take these squirrels to the prerelease cage together to get fully wild and they should be okay. If he doesn't get along with another younger squirrel, just keep him near other squirrels and continue reading below.
3. Start to take him outdoors. I would take his cage outdoors for a few hours a day weather permitting. I would continue this for a week or so, so he can get used to the sounds, smells and sights of the outdoors. If you are feeding squirrels or other wildlife in your backyard, you can continue to feed them for a few days so your squirrel can see them and learn a little fear. They will probably bark at him which should scare him. He needs to learn to fear the dominant adults. If you are going to release your squirrel to your yard, you don't want lots of other large dominant adult squirrels out there. They can and will kill your squirrel with one good bite to the back. After a few days, stop feeding all animals in your yard. You need the neighborhood animals to realize that they shouldn't come to your yard for a while. Even without food they'll keep checking your yard for a week or so.
4. Leave his cage outdoors 24 hours a day. Be sure to put some weather, rain, sun protection over the top. Put his cage far away from the sights of humans and domestic pets. Only go out there to feed, water and clean his cage. Don't hand feed him through the bars. I use a feeding door so they can't escape and I don't have to go inside. Again, if he paces, stops eating, loses weight, interact with him a little them wean him off human contact again. Make sure he has tons of fun things to eat and play with so he won't miss you. Introduce natural foods to him that he will find in the wild. Give him pine cones, acorns, roses. Make sure he has natural trees to climb in his cage. Make sure his cage is as tall as you can get, 6' is great. Give him natural nesting material and fabric so he can learn to place them in his nest box. Scatter his natural food on the floor for him to find. Place water in a bowl. Don't use a bottle anymore. (Don't you wish you just gave him to a rehabber in the first place now?)
5. Negative training if needed. Hopefully by now he will fear you a little bit when you go out to feed him. Hopefully he won't still run to the front of the cage to get close to you. Hopefully when you clean his cage he won't jump all over you and try to cuddle. If he does, it's time for some negative reinforcement. Get a squirt gun. Whenever he rushes to you when you go to his cage, squirt him and say NO real loud. If he jumps on you when you clean his cage, do the same thing. If he jumps on you, firmly remove him while saying NO. Be loud when you clean his cage. Don't speak nicely to him. This is for his own good. If he jumps on a stranger, they could kill him.
6a. Release in a yard. By now your squirrel should know how to make a nest, forage for food in his cage and fear you a little. It's time to release him to you yard. You can start by leaving the cage door open in the daytime. Stay out of your yard and away from him when he's out. You can watch him through a window. At night he'll probably go back to his nest box. You can lock him in at night if he would be safer from other animals. In a week or so, he may just leave his cage permanently. You can place another nest box or his own nest box up a tree or on a post near his cage. Make sure it's at least 8' high and has protection from the rain. Make sure the hole is facing south so he has wind protection.
6b. Release away from humans. Well, you tried but it didn't quite work out. He can build a nest, forage for food and is frightened of other animals but he still wants to jump on you. You will have to release him away from humans. Go into his cage and scare him into his nest box. Put wire mesh over the hole. Wire this to the box. Remove the box from the cage and it's time for a road trip. You need to go at least a mile away from humans. Make sure your site has water, natural food, tall trees, good nesting areas and limited predators. There need to be a few squirrels but not too many. Bring a ladder and wire his nest box as high up a tree as you can, at least 8'. He will use this as a temporary home. You can scatter a little bit of food around the base of the tree. If there are predators in the area, you might want to make a secondary exit hole in his box so he can flee if say a raccoon sticks his paw into his nestbox.
6c. Total failure. Your squirrel can't build a nest, can't forage for food, isn't afraid of other animals and wants to climb on humans. Maybe he even has metabolic bone disease because you didn't give him proper nutrition as a baby. It's a total failure. It's illegal to keep a pet squirrel in most states without a license or permit. If he is definitely not releasable, you need to find a rehabber who will use him for educational purposes. Most rehabbers have more ex-pet squirrels that they can take so this will be tough. If you can't find him a legal home, you will have to euthanize him for his own good, yours and the publics. He will not be happy as a wild pet. You and your family will not be happy with an animal they fear in their home. You can't just throw him out the back door because he will jump on a neighbor and that person will kill him. Euthanization is the only merciful thing to do. I personally have never had to do this but I know some rehabbers who have when people raised pet squirrels that were totally spoiled, neurotic, unhealthy and mean.
Hopefully you are reading this when the squirrel is still a baby. Hopefully you will now be convinced to take him to a rehabber so he can be raised and released properly. You and the squirrel will be much happier. It also is a great lesson to teach your children and a wonderful happy story to tell to all your friends. You saved a baby squirrel and took him to a place to get proper care so he could be released back to the wild to live a happy life.
Below are a few real stories about people who kept baby squirrels.
A man found a baby squirrel. He called around and found a woman who knew about squirrels who was not a Fish & Game licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She told him to raise the baby himself and keep it as a pet because the "outside world is not safe enough for squirrels." He did this but when the squirrel got to six months of age it was not as manageable. He chewed all the furniture, peed all over the house, shredded the drapes, would give hard "love bites," would accidentally claw people while climbing them and make them bleed and he terrorized the cat and dog. He would jump on and bite everyone except his main caretaker so people could never go into the room where he was kept. If his main caretaker was gone all day, he would bite him instantly when he got home. If his caretaker ignored him and threw him in his cage, he rubbed his head on the bars making himself bleed. He would also pace his cage and chew on the bars. The sound drove his caretaker crazy so he threw him out the back door.
The squirrel instantly started terrorizing the neighbors, jumping on them, biting, barking, charging. He chewed up someone's wood patio furniture, he ate everything in the bird feeder and destroyed the feeder, he dug up the plants looking for food, he attacked a small dog repeatedly. The neighbors started making calls and found me saying they had a rabid squirrel in their yard. Other neighbors wanted to kill it. One tried to kill it with a broom. I went and questioned the neighbors, found out someone raised it. The caretaker begged me to take it away from there before it got killed. By now it was injured from the broom incident so I trapped it, deprogrammed it and released it away from humans.
There is a licensed Fish & Game rehabber in Southern California. He had cancer and was going through chemotherapy so he had to stay home a lot. He found a squirrel and cared for it. He took care of it and played with it for the six months that he was going through chemotherapy. He said the little squirrel helped him get through the treatments. When he felt better he went back to doing what he was doing and was gone from the house a lot. His little buddy didn't like this. He would get bored and destructive when his caretaker was gone. He chewed on an antique table. The licensed wildlife rehabilitator came home and saw this and euthanized him. He told everyone that the squirrel was very unhappy being locked up in a cage all day long so he euthanized him to stop his misery.
A couple found a baby squirrel and raised it to five months of age. They were considering keeping it for life and were going to buy a huge cage to put on their patio. The squirrel's love bites were hurting more each day. They'd have to wear thick sweats and jeans around him because he jumped on everyone and would accidentally make them bleed with his claws. He started charging anyone who approached his cage and would bark but they could still easily pick him up. They started wondering if he was happy because he paced in his cage a lot and did odd repetitive motions. He was starting to lose weight so they contacted me about his diet. I gave them diet suggestions. I also suggested that part of his behavior issues may be psychological. He was starting to feel his wild oats. They thought about it for another week and kept calling me. Then he bit one of this kids all the way down to the bone on the finger. They brought him over.
I put him through the deprogramming process.
Fortunately he was only five months old. Any older and it's a lot more
difficult. I had to slowly wean him off human contact. The first few days were
fine but then he started pacing, rubbing his head and not eating as much. I gave
him more love. He was still confused, sad and a little depressed. I slowly
introduced a young squirrel to him. They were in the same cage but in separate
nest boxes. After a few days they started to play, then they started to sleep
together. The little girl squirrel showed him how to build a nest. In a few more
days he would rather play with her than with me. They both went to the big
outdoor cage together and he was released a month after that back to the yard
where he was found. The finders get to watch him run around the yard happy as can be.
They feel good that they saved his life, got him the proper care and helped him
become a well adjusted wild squirrel.