I don’t pretend to know very much about squirrels.
I don’t know how they remember where they bury their nuts, I don’t know how they socialize, and I don’t know how they stay warm and dry every winter in the large leaf nests they build in the upper branches of our trees, so I didn’t really know what to think about the recent small gathering of squirrels in our back yard.
It was the first Sunday after Christmas and my wife and I had stepped out onto our back patio when we let the dog out after church. My wife was the first to see the squirrels (six in all) gathered near the back fence, dashing around and chittering excitedly. (Our old poodle, who is nearly deaf, was oblivious to them as usual.) While squirrels are a regular fixture at our house it isn’t often we see so many of them together at one time. However, the first real snow of the season had just begun to fall and we supposed they were making last minute preparations for an extended treetop stay.
As we chatted, my wife noticed that one squirrel was lying on its back in the middle of the yard. It seemed a bit strange, but we continued talking until a few minutes later when I noticed the same squirrel had turned over and begun crossing the yard. There was something strange about the way it was moving, then it struck me – its tail wasn’t up. It was dragging on the ground through the newly fallen snow.
Clearly, the squirrel was hurt.
I wondered at first if the hawk that frequents our yard might have attacked it. However, given that this was a full-sized squirrel, I wondered if it might instead have been something larger than a hawk, like a fox. Of course it was also possible the squirrel had simply fallen from a high tree branch and broken it’s leg or it’s back.
It was only then that I realized the chittering of other squirrels had actually been directed at the injured one. Not being familiar with squirrel behavior as I said, a scene from the film Galaxy Quest suddenly flashed through my mind (the one where a gathering of cute alien creatures suddenly turns vicious and attacks one that was injured) and I wondered with a thrill of dread if I was about to witness a similar occurrence. I told my wife I wanted to get a closer look. She asked me what I intended to do to help it if it was hurt.
If it was, we both knew there wasn’t really anything I could do.
As a young boy I once watched my father, with tears in his eyes, put down a dog in our front yard after it had been severely injured by a passing car. He wouldn’t let me come near as he fetched his rifle. When it was all over I remember feeling both angry at him for what he had done and at the same time strangely proud of him for having the courage to do something he didn’t really want to do.
Now I do not (nor do I ever intend to) own a gun, not that I suppose I could shoot one off in my neighborhood if I did, but even as I went back inside to put on my boots I had no idea what I would do once I got out there. I only knew that if necessary putting the injured squirrel down felt like the more humane thing to do than simply going back inside my nice warm house and doing nothing while a wounded animal, in my own yard, suffered in the cold and slowly died of exposure under a blanket of freshly fallen snow.
I moved slowly as I crossed the yard, trying hard not to frighten it into any fast movements that might cause it more pain. It continued its slow trek across the thin veil of snow, moving a few inches at a time. The other squirrels, which had quickly scampered up trees at my approach, then began chittering at me. Suddenly, my wife’s warning that they might come after me if I got too near seemed a much more likely possibility.
What I saw next both shocked and surprised me.
The moment I reached the injured squirrel, it shot like a flash across the final stretch of snowy lawn, still dragging its tail behind it, but moving as fast any other squirrel I’d ever seen. It quickly scaled our black, chain-link fence but stopped, poised on its extended front legs like a gymnast on the uneven bars, when it reached the top. Its tail and both its back legs lay limply against the fence, but I couldn’t see any sign of injury. No blood. No oddly-shaped masses or lumps that might indicate any broken bones. The squirrel appeared to be perfectly normal and healthy, aside from the fact that it was apparently completely paralyzed from the chest down.
A minute or so passed this way before the squirrel, gaining courage during its respite, made another attempt to escape. I backed up a few paces to allow it to climb back down (or fall off, which ever the case may be) as it had nowhere else to go. Instead of returning to the ground, it gripped the the fence with its teeth and lowered itself to the top row of chain links. Alternating its front legs, it then shimmied rapidly sideways from link to link along the fence until it reached a low hanging evergreen branch. It lunged for the underside of the branch then, swinging backward off the fence, hung suspended beneath it. Using only its front legs it traversed the entire length of the branch to the tree trunk while the rest of its body dangled and swayed freely beneath it. When it reached the trunk it turned and scampered up the tree.
It was amazing! And as soon as the squirrel was safely in the tree the other squirrels stopped chittering at me and went about their business as usual.
I can only assume, given the squirrel’s size and the efficiency by which it maneuvered the environment, that its “disability”, however it had been acquired, hadn’t limited its ability to survive. It had simply learned to adapt. What struck me the most was how nothing about the squirrel’s paralysis had kept it from doing what squirrels do. In fact, it seemed to be thriving, not merely surviving.
As this New Year begins, I find myself thinking about that squirrel and considering how some of my own hang-ups have been limiting my ability thrive. Everyone faces their own unique obstacles to doing what they want to do or being who they want to be. Whether or not we accept those obstacles as insurmountable is up to us. So this year when I find myself tempted to give in to something that’s holding me back, I’ll remember my encounter with a paraplegic squirrel and remind myself . . . ‘If it can do it, so can I!”
And I’ll be right.