The following day, dressed in foul weather gear, while replacing rotted out framing, a splinter of wood fell on the yellow grating of the scaffolding platform. Just before sweeping it away onto the waiting canvas forty feet below, the splinter moved. On closer inspection, it revealed a dun-colored belly, tiny whiskers, and two slits where eyes should be. It looked, with its little arms, like a ginger root.
Niko picked up the creature. We crowded around. After considering the events of the previous day, we decided that we had on, or rather in our hands, a baby squirrel.
Descending the scaffolding with one arm, Niko got the little guy, small enough to fit in a closed palm, to ground level and out of the rain. Hammers were put away and IPhones came out. We searched "Emergency care for a baby squirrel." Advice came pouring back. The consensus seemed to be that we would need, then and there, a baby dropper, filled with baby formula heated to room temperature.
Back at the apartment where we were staying, Jason put the formula on the stove, Niko held the little guy, and Dave and I looked on. Dave, bless his heart, recounted animal stories involving babies and inevitable death. Niko stayed quiet and ran his finger over our new friend's head. I searched on the Internet for more information, relaying back information that seemed relevant, such as the need to massage the squirrel's belly every couple hours to make sure he emptied his intestines, as well as to make sure he got fed up to four times a day.
Plastic dropper filled, we huddled around and gave it a shot. Niko held the squirrels head aloft while Jay attempted to squeeze formula down his throat. We discussed names. Cornice was decided upon. The milk went just about everywhere except into Cornice's mouth, dribbling down his cheeks, gathering in the creases of Niko's hands, ending up on rather than in the squirrel's belly.
After three or four dropper-fulls came to rest in paper towels, we gave up. Niko made Cornice a bed from fleece pants and installed him by the bathroom radiator. I read that creases in the squirrel's skin means dehydration. Our little friend looked like one big California raisin, aged way beyond his years. When you pinched his skin, soft as the underside of a wrist, it stood up like a paper back, requiring a good minute or two to return to his skeleton.
The rain had stopped and we had lost valuable hours on the job. We returned to work, finished rebuilding the necessary frame for the (actual) cornice, filling in with pressure-treated lumber to support the brackets and corbels we had pre-built in the shop, all the while discussing different permutations of possibilities for Cornice. Should we bring him to a rescue? The local fire department? Construct him a new home in the new cornice? Let nature take its course and send him on his way?
At the end of the work day we walked quickly back to the apartment, everyone silent and (I would guess) worried we might have a dead baby squirrel in our bathroom. Niko undid the folds of fleece as we watched. Indeed our friend looked in bad shape, the folds of his skin even deeper, like an emaciated rodent, dragging himself across Jay's open palm more like a miniature sloth than anything resembling a squirrel.
I found in my dopp kit a glass dropper from a tincture bottle. We heated the milk, took up our positions around the kitchen table, and gave it another shot. Again Niko held the squirrel, cradling his head between his thumb and index finger, while Jay prepared our new dropper. I found a number for a local rescue and began researching whether they would take a baby squirrel. Dave stood by and again voiced his skepticism about the general project. As I watched the formula dribbling down Cornice's cheeks, I couldn't help but agree with him. Each time Niko would get near his mouth with the tip of the dropper, the squirrel would turn his head away and exhale, small air bubbles appearing around his mouth.
I dialed the number for the rescue and had my finger over the Send button. Then Jay let out a yelp. "He's sucking!" We huddled around – and indeed he was, the little bugger – and not only taking a drop at a time but sucking eagerly, as if his life depended on it – which it surely did. Each of us shouted encouragement to the little guy, including Dave, and a chorus of cheers went up when Cornice pooped on Niko's hand. Another one when he took a pee.
Fully fed, we nestled him back into his bed by the radiator. The four of us leaning over, collective squirrel fathers, peering down at the little guy and happy with ourselves, feeling like gods I suppose. We made a grand dinner involving bacon and beer and fell into a deep sleep.
Thus began a tenuous juggle between work, eating, and squirrel-sitting. Two girls, recently moved to Alexandria, lived beneath where we were staying, and, as soon as they caught wind of the squirrel, we realized the awesome potential of our new pet. We redoubled our efforts in feeding him.
(The finished product in Alexandria, despite squirrel-sitting duties)
Thus began the era of the squirrel. Perched on your shoulder as you make a cut on the chop saw, rolling on his back and boxing with you as you fasten on a sanding pad, rotating a strawberry between his two paws like corn on the cob, or spiraling up a down your leg as you attempted to move lumber. Cornice, nicknamed "Boog" by Niko, became a presence in the shop. Niko became the squirrel's care keeper, while Jason and Brian pitched in whenever they could. We had Brian's birthday at the shop, and the squirrel upstaged him, party goers in disbelief that the squirrel could be a permanent fixture in our lives.
Meanwhile Cornice grew. His eyelids, as if operated by a slow-moving pump jack, slowly opened, revealing two brown beads. His fur grew in, and his tremendous tail grew out. We all remarked proudly on his endowment, figuring that he could put a full-grown squirrel to shame. We pondered the possibilities of finding him a suitable mate.
One morning Niko came in with a dark look. His girlfriend's terrier had gotten loose and made an attempt on Boog's life. The squirrel made it beneath the couch but not before the dog yanked off a mouthful of tail, and shucking off the fur, leaving Cornice with more of a stub. Niko – a card-carrying animal lover and protective of our newest family member – told us he almost strangled the dog.
We spent three days retrofitting Tony Siragusa's North Jersey restaurant for the DIY show "Mancaves" with architectural salvage. Expecting to get a fair amount of face time speaking on our redwood staves from the brewing barrels of Schmidt's brewery in Philadelphia, we instead found ourselves watching as Cornice had lights and cameras shoved in his face, and Siragusa marveled over our shop pet. Cornice did, however, work his squirrel magic and helped to lure over two cute female designers, giving us the inside track on the other dudes.
(Below - the finished restaurant, absent Cornice)
At stoplights Cornice perched on Niko's steering wheel. Fellow drivers honked and laughed. He saved Niko from a parking ticket while briefly stopped in front of Greenables (a regular stop of ours for purchasing environmentally-safe construction materials.) When the Philadelphia Parking Authority officer saw Cornice staring out the back window, instead of handing Niko a ticket, she shared her own squirrel stories from caring for one when she was a kid.
I'm sure he got us jobs – and perhaps lost us a few – when people saw him running around the shop. He never roamed far, but he never moved slowly either. The dogs, Sol and Colorado, just stared at him, whining. How did this creature, representative of everything they desired to catch, get to roam free in the shop that used to be their domain. One afternoon, in a second attempt on Cornice's life, Colorado rammed through a folding chair in front of the garden door and went for Cornice, who managed to escape to the top of the bookshelf.
Meanwhile Cornice's nails developed into mini-wolverine claws. Undulled by a normal squirrel existence of scampering up and down bark, he began to be something of a liability in the shop, leaping a good four feet in the air toward your face as you tried to make a cut on the table saw. While transporting tools to a kitchen site, I turned around to see a flying squirrel, midair, coming toward my nose. At the last moment I turned my head, and he slid down the side of my face like a cat down a curtain, drawing a number of inquiries over whether I had been swatted by a bobcat.
The requirements of taking care of him also began to weigh on Niko. Left at home in Niko's room, Boog rummaged into orange oil paint. When Niko returned home, he had a new paint design or squirrel prints – not confined to the walls. The car where Cornice spent much of his time began to resemble a squirrel nest, with nut shells strewn over the floor mats, almonds hidden within the seat crevices and various deposits of peanut-butter colored squirrel doo on the dash.
We contemplated the idea of building a squirrel habitat in Niko's garden, allowing Boog to roam as he pleased. Indeed he would play outside, and come home at night to sleep – often in Niko's bed, closing his eyes only after a thorough stomach scratching. It seemed like a plausible dream.
Then he bit a neighbor of Niko's, drawing blood. And then he bit one more. Then he chewed through his plastic carrier. And it became clear that Boog's days of a domesticated lifestyle were drawing to a close.
He was released into the Schuykhill Valley Nature preserve. On weekends we occasionally go out to check on our friend. Sometimes he appears, sometimes he doesn't. Niko reported seeing Cornice with another squirrel, seemingly at peace in the wild. Either way, we miss his presence, and hope he does well in the wild. Perhaps, years down the line, a biologist will report a new population of Del Ray squirrels in the Philadelphia area – and we'll know our little guy has been busy.