The Doc Project

Eat, pray, hand-feed baby squirrels

Like most changes in his life, Miles Kenyon found himself volunteering at an animal sanctuary because of a panic attack.
A volunteer at the Toronto Wildlife Centre feeds a squirrel in the nursery department. (Toronto Wildlife Centre)

By Miles Kenyon

Like most changes in my life, I found myself hand-feeding baby squirrels because of a panic attack. I've suffered from depression and anxiety for several years and, when in the throes of an anxious episode, I make plans. I envision a new life — forest firefighter volunteer, archaeologist, bartender in Laos — and I bury myself in research. Something about taking control and devoting energy to creating a new existence tends to calm me. And I don't remember what sparked it, but this particular time, I turned to animal care.

I spent hours on my laptop in my kitchen, figuring out how I could leverage a lifetime bereft of scientific training to help animals hands-on. I grasped at the quiet nobility of feather and fur like a tether leading to a life raft.

An eastern grey squirrel rests after surgery on his paw, which had been caught on a nail. (Toronto Wildlife Centre)

I emailed several vet clinics near my house in downtown Toronto and asked if they had any room for volunteers. Unsurprisingly, they all wrote back saying those positions were filled by veterinary students and that I could try again in a few months. But my anxiety wasn't going to wait a few months. I needed to act on this new life path now.

I came across the Toronto Wildlife Centre during this bout of research and couldn't believe it when I saw a posting for a volunteer position hand-feeding baby squirrels.

Take a moment to let that sink in: hand-feeding baby squirrels.

An eastern grey squirrel, believed to be orphaned, is delivered into the Toronto Wildlife Centre's care and fed by a volunteer. This one has unique colouring, with a grey body and black head, tail, and legs. (Toronto Wildlife Centre )

The Toronto Wildlife Centre is the busiest wildlife centre in Canada and their mandate is to rehabilitate non-domestic animals and release them back into the wild. Perpetually busy, they receive up to 30,000 calls on their hotline per year and provide care for 5,000 animals annually.

They operate from the premise that animals called Toronto home first and, by and large, any harm that comes to them is because of human activity. Basically, this is a place for animals with no one to look out for them — no one to advocate for them — and I wanted to be part of that.

Perhaps more surprising than discovering that this position actually existed was learning that my application was accepted.

Part of me really believed that if I truly loved animals, I could help them more by staying away from them when they required medical assistance. But another part of me just had to try to see if this was my life's calling.

If a baby squirrel seems orphaned, the Toronto Wildlife Centre suggests contacting your local animal welfare service before disturbing them, as their parents may in fact not be far away. The experts can monitor the situation. (Toronto Wildlife Centre)

My first few shifts, I was petrified. (Note: the irony of a supposed salve for anxiety in turn causing me anxiety has not been lost). What if the other volunteers hated me? More troubling, what if the animals hated me? A lot of my identity lies in my kinship with animals and I was worried that one sour squirrel could send that belief out to pasture. After all, animals don't do pretence; if one doesn't like you, you'll know immediately.

But, after a few weeks (and a lot of help from the TWC's staff and seasoned volunteers) it was... okay. I was okay. 

I think the other volunteers were there because, like me, they wanted a connection to nature. They wanted to see the tangible results of helping animals in need. And, yes, they wanted the obvious cuteness factor of hand-feeding baby squirrels. So we had that in common. 

One of the first baby grey squirrels admitted to the Toronto Wildlife Centre in 2013 (Toronto Wildlife Centre)

After four months in the squirrel nursery, I learned that I probably shouldn't become a vet. But my time there taught me much more than that... including how to make a baby squirrel pee on command, which I can only assume will serve me well in the future. 

What success I had during my season in the wildlife nursery can be attributed to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. They provided thorough training and always had qualified staff and volunteers around for every shift (and trust me, I leaned on them heavily). 

My anxiety persists, but at least I was able to help rehabilitate hurt and needy creatures. Maybe this was all self-servitude masquerading under the guise of altruism, since healing their wounds helped to heal mine.

But perhaps that doesn't matter.

What does matter is this: as much as I was helping those little furballs return to nature, they helped return me there as well.

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About the contributor 

Miles Kenyon
Miles Kenyon is a writer, journalist and armchair linguist based in Toronto. Really into social justice, animal rights and (hopefully) making you laugh.

This piece was produced by Acey Rowe.