Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

The 5TJT has many interesting columns about a variety of things.

I frequently have enjoyed Hannah Reich Berman’s column, “That’s The Way It Is.” With a knack for speaking from the heart and on point, she usually makes interesting and valuable observations. Sometimes we disagree. Five years ago, two articles involved an odd subject for this paper.

I had the pleasure of photographing her daughter’s family of cute, sensitive, and affectionate children, who really loved my stuffed dog and were fascinated by my squirrel photos. Later, reading Hannah’s articles on squirrels, I understood why they had said I should speak to her.

Hannah’s first article outlined in painful detail her paroxysms of anguish and agony in trying to evict a squirrel that had penetrated into her basement. Cops and firemen wouldn’t intervene. The squirrel died on its own. Next she documented heroic efforts to relocate a squirrel, to protect the children. Both articles advocated fear and isolation of a creature that perhaps could be admired and appreciated.

Children should see squirrels as industrious, curious, attentive, and extremely smart. Learning to identify them through individuals’ subtle markings and unique personality can be an educational exercise and teach sensitivity to detail and personality.

They do not have rabies! If at all possible, they eat nuts, grains, seeds, and vegetables. As a bird might snatch a cookie, the squirrel could try to grab some treat your child was saving for himself. That is nature!

Anyone brilliant enough to remember 80% of their nuts deserves respect. Sadly, too few humans care to learn about creatures that continue to plant our trees, as we chop more and more down.

Responses to a mural of squirrels in my studio are remarkable. Many laugh, and some actually cry seeing the tenderness, gentleness, curiosity, and humanity in these little creatures. A few insensitive types can only squeal with scorn: rodents!

They are rodents because 4 of their 22 teeth never stop growing. So they constantly gnaw. Those teeth, with roots all the way to their brains, are enameled on one side, so they always grind to a sharp point. They can exert extreme force with their little jaws. If you wanted to feed them, until they thoroughly understand how your hand smells different from the food, you will get badly bitten. They cannot see what is right in front of their nose, with eyes placed so far to the side. They are not trying to bite you. They do not want to bite you. You are meat. Biting you is dangerous contact with a predator: you. But they cannot see, so they grab blindly what they do not quite understand.

We do the same. We lash out at what we do not understand. At NYC parks, squirrels are fed by humans. Squirrels can learn not to bite. Still, a child who is accidentally bitten would not understand. I do not advise it.

Homeowners get indignant when their security system’s control center, recessed in the attic, gets all chewed up. The squirrel cannot be expected to understand that.

Their one-pound bodies are an engineering marvel, able to wrestle nearly 30 pounds. They are rodents but not rats. They are mammals but not human. They think, reason, and understand how things move. We are beyond their understanding, but often we need psychiatrists to figure things out! Their complex world is too often not of any interest to us. We would like to trap and kill them, or deport them to Siberia.

It is easy to hate what we do not understand. Is that what we want our children to do? Have we not learned from how others have hated us because they did not understand us? Why do we feed and watch birds, which carry more disease and are transients, when squirrels are clean animals and can live as our fascinating neighbors for years?

The squirrel in your attic did not enter with malice. To a squirrel about to become a mommy, it seemed like a good place to find warmth and shelter for the ten weeks it will take.

A squirrel can live 20 years, but 80% die before their first birthday due to humans chopping down trees, relocating mothers away from offspring, traffic, foul play, and food reduction.

Squirrels feel pain and are very emotional and sensitive creatures. For survival, they must be territorial. They must learn every inch of their environment–knowing what they are about to jump on, knowing where to find water. Knowing the time of day, the big cat which crosses the yard.

They have an incredible sense of direction, using local and distant landmarks to find their food or return home if displaced. If unable to return home, survival will be unlikely–as they will be chased by every other squirrel and hounded at every attempt to eat or find peace. You will always have squirrels. They are everywhere and others will move in to fill a territory not defended by one already.

Hannah’s squirrel tales made good theater back then. I hope some have found this interesting now. Life is rarely as simple as black or white. Sometimes we should be more interested in the gray! I will be happy to answer any questions you may have about squirrels, because the more one knows the more one recognizes, and the more one recognizes the more one appreciates. v

Gary Rabenko has a New York State Class 1 Wildlife Rehabilitator license to possess and handle wildlife. He devotes his interest and expertise to helping injured or orphaned squirrels (of any color) and educating the public on this ubiquitous creature so often misunderstood. He may be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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