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A Vermont Author Lays Out the Rules, and Rewards, of Animal Rehabilitation

State of the Arts


Published June 27, 2012 at 11:00 a.m.

Anyone who has ever wanted to take a slingshot to the annoying squirrels in their backyard should read The Squirrel Diaries first. Monkton-based author Astrid Helena Nicolay might persuade you to see the furry Rodentia differently. She plainly states her basic conviction right up front, in the preface of her recently released book: “I believe we need to care about all the creatures that live alongside us on the planet.”

Squirrels included. Even if they dig up your garden and potted plants burying food, eat the precious fruit off your tree, and leave a trail of nutshells on the deck for you to sweep up.

Nicolay, 52, was raised in a family that moved around a lot. According to her brief autobiography, she has lived in Sweden, six countries in Central and South America, and the U.S., “because of my dad’s plastics manufacturing business and his stint in the diplomatic corps as Swedish consul.” As a consequence, Nicolay grew up a girl more comfortable with animals than people, to whom she constantly had to say good-bye.

When her high school classmates were job-shadowing professionals in high-paying careers, she notes, Nicolay got a gig shoveling manure at a zoo and making meals for a bear cub. At home, “There simply wasn’t a time when we weren’t busy taking care of animals,” she writes, adding, “There is no sense of purpose as clear and rewarding as putting food inside a hungry baby bird’s mouth.”

It was years later, after Nicolay had relocated to Vermont, that she stopped trying to rescue any and all animals and began to focus exclusively on squirrels — “so when feeding time comes around you are not struggling to make 10 different menus or formula mixtures,” she writes. Who knew each species has different nutritional needs?

Why the reportedly wretched smell of opossum poop did not turn Nicolay toward more sanitary pastimes is anyone’s guess, but instead she became an official wildlife rehabilitator. And, yes, there is an application process, a fee and official rules and standards; hell, you even need liability insurance. Nicolay includes a chapter near the end of the book that explains the procedure, but not without first issuing a number of caveats about how challenging, heartbreaking and even dangerous it can be.

“At certain times of the year, it is a 24/7 job,” she warns. “It gets tough when you also have a paying job (hers is a part-time sales position at NPI, a voice and data computer managed services provider in South Burlington), have to fix family dinners, help kids with homework, and pay your mother regular visits. Think about how it will affect your life — because it will.”

Throughout The Squirrel Diaries, Nicolay does her best to scare dilettantes away. Rescuing sick, injured and/or abandoned wild animals is serious business and, no matter how cute they can be, wild means wild; saving does not mean taming. And the author provides a two-and-a-half-page list of potential squirrel afflictions — bacteria, parasites and viruses — to watch out for. Some of which can pass to humans. Yikes.

Oh, and then there’s the expense:

“I spend anywhere from $7,500 to $10,000 per year for about one hundred animals, an average of about $90 per animal in food, formulas, feeding implements, medications, vet visits, first-aid supplies and cages,” Nicolay writes. “This money comes out of my own pocket as rehabilitators are not reimbursed by the state of Vermont.”

Rehabilitating wild animals, in other words, is not for weenies.

But for those whose compassion and selflessness outweighs their common sense, the book holds plenty of practical advice about becoming an official rehabilitator. And Nicolay deftly balances cautionary tales with amusing anecdotes about the adorable critters she’s saved over the years. Or not. “The average success rate,” she points out, “is less than 50 percent.”

Many of the stories are poignant, yet Nicolay veers from sentimentalism, somehow remaining clear-eyed despite her obvious love for wildlife and her often-funny descriptions of animal behavior. Her writing style is conversational and imminently readable — The Squirrel Diaries is enjoyable even if you, um, don’t care for squirrels or anything else that requires nighttime feedings, draws blood anywhere on your person or pees on your shirt.

And again, why squirrels? According to Nicolay, they are charming and hilarious. Never mind the vast dangers in the normal life of a squirrel, they really like to have fun:

On a damp and muggy day in August, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a juvenile squirrel lay on his back and play with a branch. He rolled sideways and leapt up and down. He somersaulted and then leapt frog style — boing, boing, boing. He scurried up a tree and back down. He chased his tail, and then aborted a climb by changing directions in a millisecond. He dug a hole in the dirt, zigzagged around, and started to dig another hole. Then he leapt straight up in the air, hung upside down on a low branch, and stretched his arms to the ground… Over the next few weeks, in the mornings whenever I looked out the window he would be ‘happy feeting’ away. It was dizzying to watch.

Squirrels are such party animals, in fact, that rehabilitators had better not be dull types; their charges might literally die of boredom. Nicolay notes that “a mentally and physically stimulating environment is vital to their rehabilitation success. Otherwise, squirrels can become destructive, depressed and neurotic.”

Nicolay tells such squirrel stories throughout the book, and nearly a third of her short chapters detail particularly memorable critters that have passed through her life. Her beloved Eddy, with a probable thyroid defect, was a veritable pet. Hypothyroid squirrels cannot make it in the wild, she notes, and likely will live only a couple of years in captivity — and then only with devoted care and special feeding. Nicolay stresses that rehabilitators are not allowed, by law, to keep “unreleasable” wild animals. For Eddy, she took the risk, and was willing to tackle whatever had to be done for him. Talk about special needs.

Eddy’s chapter alone reveals the devotion and difficulty of being a wildlife rehabilitator, but The Squirrel Diaries offers much more: education, practical instruction and a read that’s unexpectedly more fun than … watching a squirrel.

"The Squirrel Diaries: Tales From a Wildlife Rehabilitator" by Astrid Helena Nicolay. Wind Ridge Publishing, 115 pages. $16.95. windridgepublishing.com