Jesse McIlhenny enjoys hanging out with his new friend, Albert, who never talks back. (Photos by Rich McIlhenny)

by Rich McIlhenny

We were invited to stay for a long weekend with our friends Matthew and Wendy and their son Jackson in their beautiful restored barn in the Endless Mountains in the northeastern corner of PA, just below the Catskills.

After a morning of catching (and releasing) lunker largemouth bass with our hosts and my sons Jesse and Daniel and wife Marissa in a secret and private pond that very few people know of, we went for a ride in some all terrain vehicles down a back road and headed for a large open field. As we were cruising along, Matthew hit the brakes after spotting a baby squirrel who had fallen out of its nest. His eyes were still shut, but he had a good coat of fur which indicated that he was about three weeks old, according to the dozens of websites we would scour over the next few days.

Fearing he would be run over or become a mid-afternoon snack for a red tail hawk, we bundled him up in Matthew’s shirt and took him with us. After a fun afternoon of riding around a 100-acre field overlooking the mountains across the border into New York, we headed home with our new furry friend that Jesse decided we should call Albert.

Wendy somehow magically provided us with two jars of goat’s milk which we were told is the closest milk to all other animals’ milk. We warmed some up and put it in a syringe to feed the cold and hungry little guy. He grasped the syringe with his tiny paws and gulped the milk down until there was none left, gave a big yawn and curled up in the palm of my hand for one of many naps we would soon witness.

Having three dogs and two parakeets at home, we were far behind the number of pets our friends Matthew and Wendy have (as any of you who know them can attest), and it was decided that Albert would become the newest addition to our family.

We eagerly read website after website that listed the many pros and many cons of owning a squirrel. They are adorable as babies and will be very friendly, but they need a lot of space to climb and things to chew on, and they will scratch up your arms as they climb all over you. Taking a big gulp, we said, “What the hell,” and decided we would raise Albert and have him for the 20 years squirrels on average live and find a way to keep him and our dogs Matty, Moses and Micky apart, who just so happen to chase squirrels many times a day and have even had the unfortunate experience of catching one once.

After he spent two nights in a shoe box with stuffing, a space heater and many feedings of goat’s milk, we left our friends and stopped in Scranton for Marissa’s sister’s graduation party, where Albert stole the show. He was held and fussed about by dozens of the Vergnetti clan before we headed home with him, stopping on the way at Petsmart for a cage, bedding and accessories. Ignoring the Petsmart employees’ unsolicited advice that squirrels were not good pets and should be let back into the wild, we paid for our squirrel gear and headed home.

That night, after being held all day by us, who were taking turns rubbing his little head and feeding him, Albert started to scream out for us. This new pattern went into the next morning, and soon enough if we stopped rubbing his head he would scream out to us until we started again.

Reading some more about how if you didn’t get a baby squirrel in an environment with other squirrels, he would never have a chance in the wild, not knowing how to defend and provide for himself, and seeing that Albert might be not be getting as strong as he should, we called a family meeting.

Marissa and I told the boys that our new-found love for Albert was wonderful but not the best thing for him. He needed to roam free in the wild with other squirrels looking for nuts and playing in the trees. Jesse and Daniel understood, and while we were all very sad, we agreed that the best place for Albert would be the Schuylkill Wildlife Rehab Center in Andorra.

We took Albert to our dentist appointments, where the staff oohed and aahed over him, and then we picked up my Aunt Sabine, who joined us as we headed to Andorra. We turned him over to Rick Schubert, who greeted us at the door of the Schuylkill facility after herding a goat that ran into the building behind us making a bee line for several bags of newspapers in a nearby room.

Rick assured us that Albert was in good shape and that he would be released safely back into the wild after a few weeks of being cared for. He gave us a form with a number assigned to him that we could use to call and check on him in a few days. With heavy hearts but a huge sense of relief, we left after giving him one last kiss on his soft little head.

I now will look at every squirrel I see for the next 20 or so years and wonder if I just saw a look of recognition in its eyes, or a glimmer of thanks for the goat’s milk and head rubbings, just before he runs as fast as he can to get up the tree before Mickey and Moses and Matty catch up to him. Godspeed, little fella. We miss you already.

I called to check on him Monday (Aug. 26), and they said he is doing well. They keep them till they are 8 to 12 weeks before releasing them back in the wild (longer than the mothers do).

Rich McIlhenny is a life long resident of Mt Airy and a realtor with Remax Services. He can be reached at RMAC88@AOL.COM.