Sunday, September 26, 2010

Death of a Squirrel

We were back in Eraclea Mare on holiday this year, and one of the things I noticed was the exponential growth in the number of squirrels around. I posted two years ago about the little brown one I'd seen in the trees a couple of times, but last year I'd seen none. Then this year they were everywhere. The hotel owner confirmed that he too had never seen so many around.

And interestingly, it wasn't just the little brown ones. If you go back to the post of two years ago, you'll see that I said that the "red" squirrels we'd seen at Eraclea were brown with a white belly. And they get darker as you get further south. They're all the same species but three different subspecies - Sciurus vulgaris fuscoater (which I think were the ones we saw) in the north; S.v italicus which are found in central Italy and S.v meridionalis, the black ones in the south.

But even within the subspecies there is a lot of variation of coat colour, and unlike before, this year there were both browns and reds all over the place.

When we're on holiday, my son and I play tennis every evening. Don't ask who wins, because I'm not going to go into that ... But anyway, at the end of the court, there's a hazelnut tree. And every time we played, the game was interrupted three or four times by a cry of Squirrel on court! by whoever was facing towards the tree. They'd run down the side of the court, zap up the tree, grab a nut, and then run back straight down the centre line.

We called them Brownie and Ginger, presuming it was the same pair each time - though who knows. And there were evenings when more squirrel photographing was done than tennis. But then, at my age, any excuse for a pause in a game is a good one...

They were one of the highlights of the holiday. And a very positive sign, as most reports say that the red squirrels in Italy are being threatened by the advance of the greys in the same way as happened in Britain. Nice to know that in one area at least, numbers are increasing.

The last day of the holidays came, we checked out of the hotel and walked up to the bus stop where we'd get the bus back to Venice in order to pick up our train. When we got there, I realised I'd made a mistake. I'd looked at the summer timetable, not realising that it had changed the day before we left, and the bus we thought we were going to catch was no longer running. We had about forty minutes to wait, so as we sat there we started playing I Spy to while away the time.

I'd just said R-S- (thinking Road Sign) when Anthony said Red Squirrel. And sure enough, there was a red squirrel rushing down a tree on one side of the road, scampering across and whizzing up a tree on the other side.

We watched him for a while, and then went on playing - until Anthony suddenly said RRS - Radioactive Red Squirrel. Even I didn't realise what had happened for a moment. The squirrel was in the middle of the road, lying on its back and twisting and squirming horrendously. For a couple of seconds I thought it was trying to rub its back against the asphalt - but then it was obvious - it had been hit by a car.

We hadn't seen the car - but the occasional car had passed and we hadn't really been looking. I would like to think that the driver hadn't seen the squirrel and hadn't realised what had happened. But I wonder ...

I ran over. The squirrel was in the middle of the road and if I'd left him there he'd have been squashed by the next car that passed. Perhaps it would have been the kindest thing, but I couldn't do it. I picked him up - gingerly, and holding firmly to the scruff of his neck with one hand, so he couldn't turn and bite.

But he wasn't even thinking of defending himself. He just lay cupped in my hands, not even seeming scared. He was a young male, and had the softest fur I've ever felt on any animal.

It was clear that he was paralysed from about half way down his spine, and I wanted to put him out of his misery. I put my fingers around his neck to try to break it. You'd think it would be easy, but believe me, it's not. His neck was so unexpectedly thick and solid that I was terrified of just torturing him further, and couldn't do it.

By now he could hardly move at all. He could still slightly wave his front paws, but the frantic twisting that we'd seen when he was in the road had gone. I laid him down in the shade of a tree, where he just lay still, his eyes slightly glazed over. But every few minutes he would suddenly draw in a deep breath and then let out a whimper which rent my heart.

Twenty minutes later, he was dead. I don't know how much he suffered. The paralysis, which seemed to have been progressive, should have meant that there was no pain. I hope so.

But I was numb all the way back to Milan. It wasn't just for his death - these things happen. But I have never felt so powerless, so out of control. We were in a tiny village where there was no vet. Even if I'd known where the nearest one was, we had no car to get there - and anyway, it was likely that I didn't have the time to do anything. I knew that I should have broken his neck there and then but couldn't do it. I felt so guilty.

I don't want it ever to happen again. I've even used Google to try and find out how to break an animal's neck, so I'll be prepared if it ever happens again. But I couldn't find anything that helped.

Sleep well, little squirrel. I hope by now you're scampering around in a heaven full of hazelnut trees, and have forgotten that last half hour. But I won't - ever.


Angela said...

Well, I certainly do hope that you'll never have to be in such a position again, but since you asked... I had to put down an injured rabbit before, which was probably substantially larger than a squirrel. Same basic idea, though -- using one hand, pull on the neck to stretch it while snapping the chin upwards and backwards very sharply. Use the other hand to anchor the rest of the body (grabbing the rear quarters). Or, if you need a bit more help, put a stick against the back of its neck and snap backwards while firmly pushing into the neck with the stick. You'll feel the pop.

I responded to this mostly because I felt exactly the same way when it happened to me, and was also shocked by how much force was needed for such a small animal. But really, the only proper and humane way to do it is swiftly and with a LOT of strength behind it.

I promise the next time I comment, it won't be for so grim a purpose :-) I've enjoyed reading your blog, especially since you're on our side of the Atlantic!

Rohrerbot said...

You did the best that you could do. I've been in several of those situations and your heart just bleeds in those moments. Sometimes no matter what you do won't matter as it will just happen...but the important part is that you tried to do something which is something most people don't do.:)

Jan said...

Oh goodness how awful, for the squirrel and for you, but you did what you could. Don't feel guilty.

freerangegirl said...

What a sad story - My heart goes out you being in such a positiion. I think its easy for anyone to say that they'd be able to kill an animal if they needed to but its quite another thing feeling a life in your hands. I think you did the best that you could.

Anonymous said...

I am so saddened by this story. I had an episode like that with a squirrel too. My dog got a hold of one, and broke its back. I could not bring myself to end the misery, but like you, I put it where it could die in peace. I never want to go through that again. I can feel your pain over this. Bless you for you caring for it to the end.

Patsi said...

Not much you can do.
They always seem to get out of the way when when driving. So far...

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

Oh Sue, I'm so sorry the poor squirrel was hit. It's very hard to watch an animal, especially one that has been hit by a car, and left severely injured like that. A car in front of me hit a raccoon one night. I slammed on my brakes, with no regard for any traffic behind me, and watched the poor thing, unable to help, for what felt like forever. Cervical dislocation is very difficult in mammals (easier in birds) and likely to cause more pain if you haven't been trained how to do it properly. You did the right thing, retrieving Mr. Squirrel from the road, and finding a quiet shaded spot for him, but I know it was hard to watch. Do keep yourself safe though. I recommend keeping gloves and an old towel in the car for just occasions.

Rowena said...

Dammit Sue...I'm crying now. I love squirrels! The one that used to hang out in the chestnut tree fronting our house took off...probably not liking the fact that there are so many dogs in the area.

Dawn said...

When my dogs were younger they were always getting hold of critters and it always made me mad and sad, even though at the same time i knew it was just nature.
You did your absolute best, and it wasn't your fault. As hard as it is, just let it go...

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