February 28, 2023
Paula Perry has a multi-page spreadsheet titled “Squirrels,” which details the health and wellness of tiny, injured baby squirrels she keeps in her house in Moss Point, Mississippi. 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. “They’re tiny little helpless things, and they’ll die,” said Perry, 62, who, appropriately, is known around her neighborhood as the “Squirrel Lady, ” reports The Washington Post.
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 told the Post that she has always had a soft spot for animals—did what seemed obvious to her: She brought the three-week-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, Mississippi, 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 one to six 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.
The rodents stay at her home for roughly eight to ten 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 a grape as she watches television.
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 to back 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,” Perry said, adding that she can recognize them, too. “I always know that it’s one of mine.”
Research contact: @washingtonpost