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Wild(life) Baby Shower

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Tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand, a wide-eyed female gray squirrel greedily sucks down a small syringe of formula. Seconds later, just as the squirrel’s mother would in the wild, Jen Osburn Eliot, director of animal care and education at Wildlife Images Rehabilitation and Education Center, grooms the baby and gently wipes her bottom.

A few minutes later, Osburn Eliot tenderly does the same for an even tinier orphaned squirrel. This one — a male weighing about 4.5 ounces — hasn’t quite gotten used to nursing from a syringe, yet. Eyes barely open, he is about 5 weeks old, maybe just days younger than the female who weighs about an ounce more.

“She’s been here longer, she knows the routine,” says Osburn Eliot.

The care and feeding of these two will be done three times a day. Osburn Eliot and her staff will alternate the midnight feedings — transporting the gray furry bundles home with them each night.

Spring has sprung, and the “nursery” at the facility west of Grants Pass is teeming with babies. Fifteen gray squirrels at various stages of development are receiving around-the-clock care. As any new parent can imagine, these “infants” and “toddlers” are going through the formula and the disposables. Instead of diapers and wipes, it’s syringes, nipples, cotton swabs, cotton balls and sterile gloves.

And, it’s only just begun.

Many of the 1,000-plus patients cared for each year at Wildlife Images are babies. As spring stretches into summer, the staff expects to be surrogate parents to more than 300 baby squirrels, raccoons, skunks, foxes, birds and owls. The expectant parents are hoping a baby shower will help staff prepare and care for the new arrivals. In this case, the family and friends invited are the Southern Oregon community.

A Wild Baby Shower has been thrown in one form or another over the years, says Erin Maxson, Wildlife Images’ development director. The annual spring campaign is an attempt to keep supply a step or two ahead of demand.

In the past, school groups, non-profits and civic organizations have helped out, says Maxson, but this year, the “invite” also went out to the general public.

“Spring sort of creeps up on us, and happens so fast. Before we know it, we have several hundred babies,” says Maxson. This year, in particular, baby squirrels started arriving in late February, several weeks ahead of schedule.

They were already 5 weeks old when they arrived, says Osburn Eliot.

“They had to have been born in January, that’s really early.”

Baby gray squirrels are always the first arrivals. Generally, they come two-by-two throughout March and April.

“Baby season” gathers steam mid-May — “coincidentally around Mother’s Day,” says Maxson — with the arrival of raccoons, foxes, skunks, California ground squirrels, owls and birds.

At the peak of the season, Osburn Eliot says the clinic will admit between 20 and 30 new babies daily. The steady stream slows down “in about October,” she adds.

The babies are left orphans due to a number of circumstances. The most common are nests falling out of downed trees, or habitat disrupted when folks start to do work around their property. A stressed mother squirrel is less likely to come back to her nest, says Osburn Eliot. Sadly, a mother is hit by a vehicle while out foraging for food for her brood.

The babies may be orphans, but they’re generally healthy, says Osburn Eliot.

Arriving cold, wet and dirty on March 27, a pair of sibling squirrels that had fallen out of a tree weren’t expected to make it through the first night at Wildlife Images. After getting cleaned up and warmed up, “they perked up,” she says. Their eyes still closed, they were only a few weeks old. Two days later, they were eating and doing fine.

One orphaned squirrel came in stressed most likely due to loneliness, fear and separation anxiety. The little critter underwent a bit of “therapy” with a “Snuggle Puppy” — a stuffed dog designed to mimic a mother with simulated breathing, a pulsing heart beat and body heat. The gray baby now enjoys the companionship of a squirrel buddy, says Osburn Eliot.

In addition to the disposable products, Wildlife Images is hoping to collect donations to purchase another four Snuggle Puppies as well as four new incubators to allow staff to transport the smallest patients to their homes. Not only portable, the incubators can be plugged into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter or easily charged like a cellphone.

To adequately rescue, rehab and release any of the animal babes back into the wild, care and feeding must be very specific. And, every effort is taken to prevent the animals identifying with humans as their species. Handling and exposure to humans is done only at feeding. With crows and ravens, Osburn Eliot says it’s necessary that they wear full masks “to hide our human faces.”

“We go to great lengths,” says Maxson. Because they visually imprint, “birds identify with their fosters faster than other species. It’s important to camouflage.

“And, there’s no cuddling.”

A pair of 7- to 8-week-olds scamper around their kennels, taking to the branches inside like gymnasts to a balance beam. They’ve been introduced to the smell of solids and are beginning to nibble rather than nurse. When the weather is warmer, they will be moved outside, where they will have to learn to forage for food, and adapt to the sights and sounds of woodlands.

Outside the clinic, a trio of rambunctious gray squirrels is “squirrely” in a shelter designed to simulate their future habitat. Curious, but wary, of strangers, they are doing cartwheels and somersaults in their kennel.

“And, that’s exactly how we want them to act,” says Osburn Eliot. Soon, they will be ready for release.

Baby season is no doubt the busiest time of year at Wildlife Images, admits Osburn Eliot. “But, that’s where you see success stories like these.”

To “attend” the baby shower, donations of cotton balls, cotton swabs, sterile syringes and gloves may be dropped off or mailed to Wildlife Images at 11845 Lower River Road, Grants Pass, Oregon 97526. Cash donations will also be accepted. For more details and to peruse Wildlife Images’ baby shower registry, go to wildlifeimages.org/WILD-Baby-Shower. Also, more information is available on Wildlife Images’ Facebook page.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Three baby squirrels in an outdoor cage at Wildlife Images in Merlin.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jen Osburn Eliot cleans a baby squirrel after feeding at Wildlife Images in Merlin.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jen Osburn Eliot feeds a baby squirrel at Wildlife Images in Merlin.