As soon as you go outside, you will probably see a squirrel scurrying up a tree or looking for seeds. These common wild rodents could easily slip under your radar, but National Squirrel Appreciation Day (January 21) is a time to notice and celebrate the vital role these tiny creatures play in healthy ecosystems.
Squirrels are natural gardeners in savannas and oak grasslands. In southern Wisconsin, their stewardship is especially important because various native grassland types are endangered.
“Oak savannah habitats are really planted and tended by squirrels,” says Erin Lemley, veterinary wildlife technician at the Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) Wildlife Center, where the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) provides animal medical care. “The plants are spread by squirrels who move and bury the acorns and don’t come back for them.”
However, despite their abilities and qualities in the wild, squirrels should never be made pets. Lemley and his colleagues at the Wildlife Center have seen a recent increase in the number of people illegally keeping and attempting to breed squirrels.
“People think they can easily rehabilitate a wild animal on their own,” says Lemley. “But when you don’t have the right training and you’re not familiar with all the skills you need, you can either cause a problem that makes the animal sick, or you can raise an animal that doesn’t. unafraid of predators, including humans.Because they are unafraid of humans, they become aggressive when they don’t get what they want or when they try to communicate.
“Most of the patients we’ve seen come to us not because something bad happened in nature, but because they had some kind of human interaction that hurt them or orphaned them. So we think we’re just giving back and trying to undo some of the damage done to the environment.
Lemley and the Wildlife Center team are now working to return three squirrel patients, who had been kept by private residents, to “wild” again ahead of scheduled release. Technicians shake cans filled with coins every time they enter the room as a form of “light hazing”, the aim being to make people less friendly to squirrels. Technicians also staggered feeding schedules to destabilize the animals‘ expectations of human interaction. Ultimately, they seek to restore the balance of ecosystems that depend on squirrels.
“Most of the patients we’ve seen come to us not because something bad happened in nature, but because they had some sort of human interaction that hurt them or orphaned them,” explains Lemley. “So we feel like we’re just giving back and trying to undo some of the damage done to the environment.”
For more than seven years, the Zoological Medicine Group at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine has provided medical care to the thousands of native wildlife animals served by the DCHS Wildlife Center each year. The center provides care for injured or orphaned native wild animals with the goal of releasing healthy animals back into their natural habitats. This partnership with SVM also helps prepare UW veterinary students to provide wildlife medical care and work with licensed wildlife rehabilitators early in their careers.
To celebrate National Squirrel Appreciation Day, Lemley encourages admiring animals from a distance. Without our intervention, squirrels can continue to heal and improve the natural world.