The Washington Post
She saves baby squirrels: ‘They’re quite destructive. I don’t care. I love them.’
Paula Perry has a multipage spreadsheet titled “Squirrels,” which details the health and wellness of tiny, injured baby squirrels she keeps in her house. She names each one: Carlos, Lola, Hazel, Huey and Dewie.
Perry keeps meticulous notes on the more than 70 struggling baby squirrels she has rescued and rehabilitated over the past 13 years at her home in Moss Point, Miss.
“They’re tiny, little helpless things, and they’ll die,” said Perry, 62, who, appropriately, is known around her neighborhood as the “Squirrel Lady.”
Sometimes, the squirrels are very sick, like the one she named Jinksie, who had double pneumonia.
“She was a little fighter,” Perry wrote in her spreadsheet. “She did very well after a week and was on the mend.”
“They steal your heart,” said Perry, who finds the animals in trees, on roads and through neighbors, and releases them in her backyard once they’re strong enough.
Perry’s spreadsheet chronicles dates and specifics such as the squirrels’ weight, eating habits, mannerisms and progress. She has a postal scale to track their growth.
“If I’m worried about them not putting on weight, then I can weigh them,” she said.
Perry’s rodent rescue efforts started in 2010, when her neighbor spotted a baby squirrel hanging from a tree. Perry — who said she has always had a soft spot for animals — did what seemed obvious to her: She brought the 3week-old squirrel in for medical assistance.
“I could tell he was seriously injured,” said Perry, who named the squirrel “Wockey” and took him to a local vet that offers wildlife care.
While at the Bienville Animal Medical Center in Ocean Springs, Miss., Perry struck up a conversation with Trish Styles, a veterinary technician, who told her about wildlife rehabilitators — people who volunteer to house ailing wild animals, and nurse them back to health.
On the spot, Perry decided to become one.
“Paula is all about the squirrels,” said Styles, who has worked at the clinic for 22 years. “She does amazing. She has the best, healthiest squirrels.”
There is a need for wildlife rehabbers, Styles explained, adding that particularly after natural disasters strike, such as Hurricane Katrina, or other extreme weather events, many wild animals — including birds, squirrels, raccoons and possums — get severely injured or displaced. Babies struggle to survive on their own.
Becoming a wildlife rehabilitator entails getting a permit and attending annual training sessions. Styles interviews prospective rehabbers, and if she determines they are up for the challenge, she adds them to her permit. She supports them, offering medical input and other advice.
Although the clinic pays for food, medication, vet care, equipment and essential supplies, “it’s a big commitment,” Styles said, adding that despite their small size, baby squirrels need a dedicated caretaker, as they must be fed every few hours, including overnight.
Styles has about 25 wildlife rehabbers on her permit, and “Paula is one of my best,” she said. “She goes the extra mile. She notices every little thing.”
For Perry, watching an animal’s condition steadily improve is rewarding, she said.
“Once you see a baby squirrel taking formula from a syringe, and they hold onto it with their little paws, I’m sorry; you just have to fall in love with them.”
“Even if they chew your electrical wires, which they do,” she added. “A lot of people don’t like squirrels because they’re quite destructive. I don’t care. I love them.”
Although squirrels can wreak havoc on homes and telephone lines and are therefore considered pests, they are not as destructive as rats and mice. They also serve an important ecological function and have been called “nature’s gardeners,” since they regularly bury seeds — which helps to expand forest diversity and growth.
When Perry became a wildlife rehabber, her daughter (Kati Perry, who is now a reporter for The Washington Post) had just gone off to college.
“I think it filled a maternal need,” Paula Perry said. “When you’re looking at something so helpless, you want to help it and feed it and make sure it flourishes.”
Apart from rehabilitating one baby raccoon named Hope in 2014, Perry now sticks to squirrels that are generally between 1 to 6 weeks old. She has learned to determine their age based on various factors, including how much fur they have, and whether their eyes are open or closed.
Initially, the squirrels reside in a pet carrier on her kitchen counter, until they are ready to transition to a cage in the backyard, and eventually into the wild.
“My husband is a very, very patient man,” Perry said. Still, “he put his foot down to the raccoons and possums.”
Styles will often assign animals to her, but since people in the community know Perry as “Squirrel Lady,” she regularly gets calls from friends and strangers who have found a struggling squirrel.
The rodents stay at her home for roughly eight to 10 weeks.
Baby squirrels require ample attention, Perry explained, including constant feedings. Based on their individual condition, Perry must regularly administer medications — such as antibiotics — and tend to wounds and other concerns.
And some squirrels demand play time.
“They get lonesome,” Perry said, adding that sometimes they like to cuddle on her shoulder, or sit on her lap. They snack on a cherry or grape as she watches television.
“Some of them, I really got attached to,” she said, explaining that several of her squirrels did not survive, which was devastating for her.
Mickey’s passing in 2015 was particularly painful.
After she released him, “he was attacked by an animal of some sort,” Perry wrote in the document. “I cried and cried and cried. I miss him so much.”
Perry tracks everything in the document — including personality traits and individual quirks. For instance, she described Sugar as a “very skittish squirrel” who “loves cookies and Goldfish.”
“Squirrels have a sweet tooth,” she said.
Beyond their snack preferences, Perry is most concerned about their health and calls Styles if something seems off. Perry has taken several squirrels to the clinic for medical attention, and some have received X-rays to determine if they have broken limbs.
While Perry typically only has one squirrel with her at a time, she has had as many as four in her house. In cases where she’s looking after several squirrels, she coordinates their names: Harry and Sally; Alvin, Simon and Theo; Rose, Blanche and Dorothy. If there is more than one male or female, Perry puts a dab of nail polish on their heads to distinguish them.
When she leaves home for more than a few hours, Perry brings the squirrels with her. When she first became a rehabber, Perry was also volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
“I’d just take them with me when I had a court date, and put them in the CASA office,” she said.
As she helps the squirrels heal and grow, they bring her joy. Letting a squirrel go can sometimes be sad, she continued, but it also gives her a sense of pride and purpose.
“You can tell when they’re ready to release, because they go crazy in the cage,” she explained.
Often, though, they come back to visit her — which, she said, is a major thrill. She keeps pecans and walnuts on hand to supply them with snacks.
“I think they recognize my voice,” said Perry, adding that she can recognize them, too. “I always know that it’s one of mine.”
“You just have to fall in love with them.” Paula Perry