Red squirrel, blue squirrel

Even the squirrel ladies are polarized

When I joined a wildlife-rescue group last year and began rehabilitating baby squirrels, the response from people around me was immediate. My brother, who lives on acreage in South Sacramento, admitted to pulling out a BB gun whenever he sees squirrels raiding his fruit trees, but my hairdresser said she adored squirrels and thought my undertaking was admirable. Her husband, however, was mortified.

“Why the hell do you want to save squirrels?” he said. “They’re just rats that run around in trees.”

I bumped into one of my neighbors in the produce section at the grocery store and told him about my rehabbing efforts, and he stared at me in disbelief for several seconds before bursting into a fit of maniacal laughter and almost falling over backward into the cantaloupe display. I distinctly heard the word “roadkill” in the garbled sentence he tried to choke out while he was gasping for air.

Call it my reaction to the Bush administration rolling back 20 years of environmental progress—or, on a more personal level, my reaction to the endless subdivisions and strip malls that are obliterating the Sacramento landscape—but I wanted to help nature, and wildlife rescue seemed like a good place to start. I admit squirrels aren’t the most glamorous animal I could have picked, and the fact that they’re not endangered doesn’t help their status, either. But given the modest size of my suburban home, I couldn’t very well nurture grizzly bears.

On a rainy morning last spring, I watched a veteran wildlife rehabber hydrate 3-week-old squirrels that had lost their nest and mother when homeowners took down some trees, and I was hooked. I know people get ticked off because squirrels dig in flowerpots, wreak havoc with birdfeeders and feast on backyard fruit. But try holding a helpless baby squirrel and watching it guzzle formula and then burrow into a basket filled with baby blankets, and you might have a change of heart. At the very least, saving a squirrel makes more sense than a lot of other human activities.

Ironically, it was the actions of humans, my own included, that sabotaged my squirrel-rehabbing adventure three months after it began.

In retrospect, the warning signs were evident right away. When our group gathered in the home of a fellow rehabber to watch an animal-care video, I was surprised to see a number of mementos indicating staunch support for the Bush/Cheney alliance. A nature lover who voted Republican? I kept my cool and tried to ignore the troubling discrepancy. Saving wildlife is what matters, I told myself, not conflicting political views.

Even when the rehabber who was mentoring me repeatedly alluded to her Christian beliefs, I maintained silence. Later, she blamed me for exacerbating our personal differences, citing the fact that I didn’t declare my nonreligious sentiments from the start. She was probably right. The first time the words “God” and “church” and “Christian” popped out of her mouth, I should have told her I didn’t subscribe to the Christian faith.

But I didn’t. I was interested in learning about squirrel care, not starting a discussion that might lead to a strained relationship. By then I suspected my mentor was the biggest right-wing conservative this side of Crawford, Texas, and without our mutual interest in wildlife, we’d probably get along about as well as Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie.

Things came to a head one sweltering day in late August when I found myself tagging along with her while she dropped off an injured squirrel at the home of another rehabber. We walked through the woman’s door, and Rush Limbaugh was blasting from her radio at an earsplitting volume. It was too much for me. I didn’t know if I could keep up the facade and continue working with people who listened to right-wing talk shows and believed God smiled exclusively on America. It didn’t make any sense that some of these wildlife enthusiasts approved of a president who was carving up the environment and serving it to his corporate cronies on a silver platter.

Maybe the vibes from Limbaugh’s spiel followed my mentor out to the car, or maybe she could sense my inner turmoil, because during the ride home the conversation abruptly turned to politics, and at a certain point she referred to liberals as “illogical” and announced that she was a conservative. After holding it in all summer, I finally blurted out that I was an “illogical” liberal. She claimed she’d known all along, which made me wonder why she’d goaded me into saying it in the first place.

Apparently, in this post-2004 election world, wildlife rehabbers are just as polarized as the rest of the nation.

Several accusatory e-mail exchanges followed, but we struck an uneasy truce when I needed her help with a couple of baby squirrels that had pneumonia. When they died, I didn’t think of it as a metaphor for the end of my rehabbing career, although it had occurred to me that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities. I’d joined wildlife rescue, in part, as a conscientious objection to Bush’s environmental policies, and I had ended up consorting with the same people who’d put him in charge.

When I finally told my mentor I was thinking of dropping out of the rehab business, she said she didn’t want me in the group anyway—in other words, you can’t quit; you’re fired.

I’d like to try my hand at rehabbing again someday, but maybe I’d better wait for the results of the 2008 election.