Jordan Schmolka

Walk into Gayle Molloy-Barbour’s house in early autumn, and odds are the first several dozen things you see will be squirrels. To start, there are 38 live ones currently residing in the home, ten or twelve of whom occupy a cage by the front door and will fling themselves at the bars and squawk, sounding the alarm, when you enter. Make your way into the living room, and you’ll find a couch festooned with four different squirrel-themed pillows and a blanket decorated with photos of pink, hairless newborn squirrels. On the mantle, beside an assortment of squirrel figurines, a Russian nesting doll sporting a baby squirrel, and a postcard of a squirrel emerging from a jack-o’-lantern, is a plaque that reads, “WELCOME to the Nut House.”

Settle in, though, and you’ll see her. Hidden behind a large cage, nestled in a sturdy green armchair, in calm control, is Gayle, squirrel savior of the greater New Haven area. A soft-faced, bespectacled redhead, she’s dressed in blue jeans and white sneakers printed with photo-realistic red squirrels. Her squirrel-themed sweatshirt of the day –– one of a dozen or so in rotation –– is emblazoned with the image of another russet-colored cutie and the words,

“I don’t care what anyone thinks of me

Except squirrels, I want squirrels to like me.”

Contrary to her messaging, Gayle’s tone, directed towards a human, is kind. On my first visit, she apologizes that she hasn’t gotten up to greet me; in her lap, suckling from a syringe of formula, is –– you guessed it –– a tiny, skinny squirrel.

***

This wasn’t quite the outcome Gayle envisioned when, nine years ago, her husband, Ken, called her outside their house in New Haven’s East Shore to show her something. On the sidewalk in front of the bungalow was a baby squirrel.

Jordan Schmolka

“I said, ‘Yes, that’s a squirrel. Put it over here by the tree where I see all the squirrels,’” she tells me. “And he said, ‘I tried! You try.’”

Gayle, then 48, was a lifelong resident of Connecticut and devoted lover of animals (she’d recently ended a part-time gig as a professional rescuer of cats, deciding that finding adoptive homes required excessive human interaction). No stranger to squirrels, she was neither nervous nor particularly moved. She picked up the scrawny pink creature and placed him under the tree. But when she walked towards the house, the baby crawled along behind her. Fine, she thought, and brought the squirrel inside.

Online, she found phone numbers for several local squirrel rehabilitators, but each said they were full. (It was September, peak time for squirrel births and subsequent baby squirrel disasters –– dog attacks, tree falls, and the like.) So Gayle did what the rehabbers suggested and tried to return the squirrel to his mother. She nailed a cardboard box to the tree out front and put the baby inside, playing audio of squirrel cries from her phone. Her efforts were to no avail: Mama never showed.

Thus, Sammy stuck around. (Ken named him right away.) But after a few weeks of eating store-bought nuts and seeds, something went wrong: Sammy’s back legs stopped working. Desperate for help, Gayle turned to the internet. On SquirrelBoard.com, a forum that now boasts 7,703 members and over a million posts, squirrel enthusiasts around the globe answered her plea. No more nuts, they said. The boy needs calcium! Following their instructions, Gayle bought a can of Fox Valley formula, developed for puppies, and little by little, Sammy got better.

Meanwhile, word got around: Gayle knew what to do with a squirrel. When people contacted the Squirrel Board about rodents in need of rescue in New Haven, other users asked Gayle if she could take them, and she did. An MS diagnosis had forced her to retire from her job at a phone company, so she had the time; her dog-walking business and volunteer gig at the local VFW took only a few hours each day. Gayle pored over best practices for rehab, buying Henry’s Healthy Squirrel Block, a protein supplement, and colorful fleece to line the cages she’d begun to amass in the living room. She took the wildlife rehabbing class offered by the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) and spent 40 hours shadowing a veteran rehabber. Dr. Gavaletz at the Branford Veterinary Hospital signed a form saying he’d see any animals she brought in for care, free of charge, and Gayle was in business.

Lots of rehabbers are generalists. On the Connecticut DEEP list of Persons Authorized to Handle and Care For Most Small Mammals, thirteen of the twenty who rehab squirrels say they’ll also take some combination of woodchucks, waterfowl, rabbits, skunks, bats, and opossum. Gayle isn’t like that. “I’m really fussy about how I do everything,” she says. She’d picked her thing, and she was going to do it right.

The focus paid off. Now, Gayle’s an admin of the Squirrel Board, and she’s on the board of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators’ Association. She takes in and releases around 130 squirrels a year. That’s meant essentially turning over her home –– and her life –– to the animals. Gayle wears a headset to more efficiently respond to local squirrel emergencies, and she sleeps fewer than six hours a night, up early and late to feed the hungry masses. She spends around $2,000 per month on rehabbing supplies (the adult squirrels receive elaborate lunches: spring mix, avocadoes, sweet potatoes, sugar snap peas, Belgian endives and four-pound bags of nuts from Stop & Shop), the cost only slightly offset by online fundraisers and donations. And Gayle hasn’t gone on an overnight trip in a decade (something Ken is understandably peeved about, though he bears partial blame, as Gayle likes to remind him). Going away would mean having someone else feed the squirrels, which would be upsetting for both parties: The squirrels would get scared, and the person would get chomped on.

Gayle gets bitten, too –– she has scratches up and down her arms, and shows me a photo of a deep, bloody gash in her thumb. But she doesn’t mind. “That’s what you want,” she tells me. After all, rehabbing is about returning an animal to the wild, not domesticating it.

“You don’t want them to be friendly with people because people –– people suck,” Gayle says. “People don’t like squirrels.”

***

Most Americans understand the allure of pets. Dogs are man’s best friend, and nobody bats at an eye at someone who adores cats, so long as they own under five. Several varieties of rodents, too, have earned a spot in our hearts and homes: Rabbits, gerbils, and guinea pigs are par for the course in an American pet store. I myself am not immune to the charms of a small, fluffy friend. In second grade, I pestered my parents for months until they relented and bought me a golden-furred hamster. When Teddy died of a cold two years later, I was inconsolable.

Somehow it’s different with squirrels, though. Growing up in the Northeast, I admired their strange, front-facing descent of trees (the opposite of the fireman’s crawl we kids had learned for ladders) and the jerky, paranoid way they moved, as if they were acting in a poorly loaded video. But like most people, I felt no desire to bring them inside. Squirrels made aggressive eye contact and stole our birdseed. They were cute, sure, but they were clearly wild.

Back in the day, however, we didn’t take that for granted. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, squirrels were among the most common household pets in the United States. Wealthy families commissioned portraits of their regal children holding equally regal pet squirrels on dainty gold leashes. In the 1851 manual “Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management,” the squirrel gets a whole chapter. (The author notes approvingly that “It may be taught to jump from one hand to the other to search for a hidden nut, and it soon knows its name, and the persons who feed it.”) And at least one Founding Father nursed affection for the animal: In 1772, Benjamin Franklin wrote a lengthy eulogy for his friend’s pet squirrel, Mungo.

“Remote from the fierce Bald-Eagle, / Tyrant of thy native Woods, / Though hadst nought to fear from his piercing Talons; / Nor from the murdering Gun / Of the thoughtless Sportsman,” he lamented. “Daily wert thou fed with the choicest Viands / By the fair Hand / Of an indulgent Mistress.”

Still, even then, the facts were undeniable. Squirrels have sharp teeth and piercing claws, and aren’t judicious about their use of either. They require ungodly amounts of very particular foods to fuel their boundless energy. Gayle herself agrees: “They’re really lousy pets.”

By the early twentieth century, the tide had turned on our bushy-tailed brethren. In 1918, the California government used $40,000 in emergency wartime funds to launch a public war on squirrels. Volunteers traveled the state, enjoining patriotic schoolchildren to help them destroy the army of pests that threatened their precious crops. To those ambivalent about annihilating “the little ally of the Kaiser,” they offered encouragement: “Why hesitate? We can get ‘em. How? Poison ‘em, gas ‘em, drown ‘em, shoot ‘em, trap ‘em, submarine ‘em.” Prize money was promised to the schools whose students murdered the most. By the end of Squirrel Week, bloodthirsty California children had turned in 104,509 amputated tails.

Over the next half century, though no other state demonstrated quite the same level of animosity towards squirrels, most, including Connecticut, adopted exotic pet laws that banished them from the home. Wildlife rehabilitation, which emerged in the 1970s as urbanization placed increased numbers of animals in distress, provides a legal exception to the rule: People with the appropriate qualifications may offer their services to the injured and orphaned of the animal kingdom before releasing them back to the wilderness. Though government-sanctioned, rehabbing remains firmly the terrain of civilians, none of whom are paid for their services. Most are middle-aged women like Gayle. They have decided the burden is worth it, and are willing to answer the call.

***

One day, I arrive at Gayle’s just in time to see an SUV pull into the driveway. Cheryl, a local property manager, climbs out with three cages. Each contains one small squirrel. Both Cheryl and Gayle are fuming: The babies had been caught by a trapper at one of the houses Cheryl manages. The man claimed he’d released their mother in Naugatuck State Park, but Gayle is pretty sure he just drowned her.

“I spend my life cleaning up the messes that assholes like him make,” Gayle says as she reaches into each cage with a blanket wrapped around her hand, preparing to rehydrate the keening siblings.

“Horrible, horrible people,” Cheryl agrees.

For every trapper, though, there’s a stranger who delivers a squirrel to rehab. Gayle says the intake process is surprising: The people you least expect to drop everything to save a puny animal are often the ones who do. Once, a homeless couple took several buses from the New Haven Green to bring Gayle an ailing baby. Another time, someone in Windsor sent four squirrels alone in a cardboard box in an Uber. When they arrived, Gayle said to the driver, “I bet this is one of the weirdest ferries you’ve ever had.” He said, “Not really, but can I see the squirrels?”

Gayle rarely refuses a baby. When Cheryl leaves and I remind her that she’d decided she had no vacancies, she laughs: “Famous last words.” But very young squirrels require constant care. Come fall, the formula syringe is practically attached to Gayle’s hand, and she goes through Miracle Nipples, available online from Chris’ Squirrels and More for $4 a pop, like candy. At night, she wakes up every three hours to feed, squinting through bleary eyes to see when the “milk line” on each translucent stomach has disappeared. (“It’s like a gas gauge,” she tells me. “Fill it up when the tank is empty.”) During the day, she sometimes brings a few of the neediest newborns to her dog-walking gigs, hidden away inside a secret pouch in her purple infinity scarf. (The dogs are especially eager to see her on those walks, she says. Humans are less enthusiastic –– once, in line at the grocery store, a fellow shopper gave her an odd look when her scarf sneezed.)

Jordan Schmolka

Gayle wasn’t so big on nursing when she had her own infant, Kevin. She was a young mother, recently divorced from her first husband, and she says she never had time to relax. Now, though, she spends blissful hours every day cradling hungry babes. The living room is warm and quiet, and it smells like formula. An autumn breeze blows through the open front door. Till 5 p.m., the house belongs to Gayle –– Ken is at work at the New Haven Housing Authority. Her son, Kevin, now 36, lives north of New Haven. One of his three-year-old daughter’s first words was “squirrel.”

In October, Gayle shows me a tiny, nearly hairless nub of a squirrel that calls to mind both Golem and Dobby. Pinkerton (Pinky for short) is several weeks old, but has the appearance of a newborn. Gayle thinks his mother may have sensed his abnormality and chucked him from the nest.

Taking a deep breath, I ask the mean question: If Pinky isn’t cut out to survive, should we just let natural selection do its thing?

“Well, I guess as a rehabber you don’t think that. Because you don’t know,” she says. Gayle has successfully rehabbed squirrels that weighed in at only nine grams, ones with maloccluded teeth, and ones with broken bones –– squirrels that vets had given up on. Being a rehabber means being willing to believe in an underdog, and to fight for him.

The next time I visit, Gayle tells me that Pinky has passed. I worry she’ll be devastated. She’s not. Though Gayle is a very capable rehabber, plenty of squirrels have died in her care.

“I guess the most important thing about rehabbing is to keep a list of all those that you save and not keep a list of all those that you couldn’t save,” she tells me. “Because if you keep that list, you won’t be able to do it.” Some fifty of her most beloved failures are buried in the backyard. Pinky, who didn’t make quite as much of an impression, now occupies the woods behind her father’s house in Guilford, his body offered up to the elements.

Just two miles from those woods is the childhood home where Gayle first cultivated a passion for animals. When she was young, her grandmother Dorothy encouraged her to play with the family pets: a goat, multiple rabbits, and a pig named Tulip. Gayle found out recently that the instinct to rescue emerges even earlier in her bloodline. Her great-grandmother, another Guilford resident, once took in a squirrel of her own.

It’s fitting, then, that Guilford is also where the success stories end up. When the squirrels Gayle takes in reach 14 weeks old, she exiles them to a small “rehab building” in her backyard to prepare for the wild. For another month and a half, she provides the shed-dwellers with daily salads but refrains from touching them or lavishing them with compliments. Then, she rounds them up with a child’s frog-catching net and loads them into a cat carrier for the 20-minute road trip. They’re less agreeable captives now, and this task often takes hours of sweating and raging. On the day Gayle offers to show me a release, I clear my schedule, only to receive a defeated text in the late afternoon: “I can’t get anyone. Another day.”

Even when there’s no new cohort to transfer, Gayle visits the release cage in Guilford every afternoon. She has to feed the 20-week-old squirrels on deck for freedom, and see who’s still hanging around.

On a Saturday in early November, facing the trees, she lets fly a handful of peanuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts. For a few moments, nothing happens. Then, suddenly –– the gleam of gray fur. Cautiously, a squirrel emerges. Normal-sized, fleecy and plump, it darts over to a peanut and snarfs it. Seconds later, another appears, then another.

Gayle laughs and calls out to each: “Hi there, sweetheart!” She’s sure she released these guys.

Watching her, I think about the hundreds of hours and dollars Gayle spent to get them here: the nuts, the salads, the late-night syringe feedings, the daily cage cleanings and weekly trips to the laundromat to wash their soiled blankets. The squirrels, however, aren’t concerned with all that. They’re collecting their bounty and hightailing it back to safety. Gayle’s done her job right, and the animals harbor no love for her at all.

***

Not every squirrel quite makes the transition to cool, rational human-hater. For instance, there’s Grover. Unlike the other squirrels curled up in the BabyWarm incubator, he spends most of his time on his back, waving his paws in the air like he’s frantically trying to keep you from spoiling a surprise. Grover fell out of the nest on his head as a baby and is “neuro” now. While that means he has to be treated like a squirrel half his age, it also makes him quite the socialite.

One afternoon, Gayle picks Grover up and sits him next to me on the couch. He considers the squirrel stuffed animal beside him, approximately six times his size, and does a backflip.

When Gayle goes into the kitchen to warm up more formula for the babies, I’m enlisted as Assistant Squirrel Babysitter. Suddenly, I’m nervous. What if he falls off the couch? I think. Can he sense my lack of compassion? My ineptitude?! I remember Gayle’s sweatshirt: When it comes down to it, I, too, want squirrels to like me.

Tentatively, I reach out and stroke one of Grover’s excessively large, rabbit-like ears. I worry that he’ll whip his head around and slice off my finger, but he just sighs.

Grover will never be able to survive in the wild. According to state law, that means he should have been euthanized as soon as he arrived in Gayle’s care. But Gayle says she didn’t even consider 86ing him –– it would have meant murdering an innocent baby, one who could still enjoy a long life inside. (On average, squirrels survive less than a year in the wild; in captivity, they often make it past 10.) Instead of killing Grover, Gayle has committed to giving him the extra care he needs. He spends hours in her lap, alternately snuggling into her chest and flopping around in circles, inefficiently investigating her sleeve. Grover’s disoriented charisma has made him the star of Gayle’s Facebook page, and of my heart. (Though I remain humble and know I am but one of his many admirers, my Squirrel Board username is groverfan97.)

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Upstairs, in his very own bedroom, there’s one more long-term resident: Sammy, the first squirrel Gayle ever saved. Gayle released him outside in 2011, a year after he arrived, but he refused to leave. In the near decade since, he’s earned free rein in the house. At night, Sammy waits by the door for Ken’s car to pull in, and after dinner he climbs into Gayle’s lap. These days he can’t see too well and isn’t up to tackling stairs, but he knows it and everyone else does, too: He’s the most beloved creature in the house.

***

On my fifth visit, Sammy isn’t doing so hot. Gayle brought him to the vet recently, his first trip out of the house since he was nine weeks old. Dr. Gavaletz said something is wrong with Sammy’s kidneys, and his arthritis is flaring up. He’s been having seizures, too, and has stopped prowling around the dining room. Instead, he lies quietly under his water bottle, which drips slowly onto his fur.

Gayle carries Sammy over to the big chair and offers him a syringe of warm formula. Eyes foggy with cataracts, he grabs on with one tiny paw and sucks determinedly.

“See?” Gayle says. “He still wants to live.” But she has to check in with herself constantly, she says, to be sure she isn’t just prolonging his life for her own sake. Her voice gets very quiet. “You have to do what’s right for them, not for you. That’s the most important thing.”

Just before Sammy arrived on the sidewalk, Gayle tells me, her grandmother Dorothy passed away. Gayle had devoted herself to Dorothy’s care in the final months, and she took the death hard. When Sammy appeared, Gayle was sure that Dorothy had sent him. “He gave me somebody to take care of,” she tells me. “In fact, he gave me a lot of somebodies to take care of.”

As she looks down at the squirrel breathing slowly in her lap, Gayle’s face sags. “Sam is breaking his promise,” she says. “We were supposed to live to the very same day.” She’s joking, but her voice is tight. “Either he’s breaking his promise or I should tidy things up.” She laughs. “Something you’re not sharing with me, Sam? ‘Cause I’ve got some stuff I need to take care of if there is. I’d have to find placements for some of these doggone squirrels.”

That’s a risk of caring for non-releasables, Gayle says. They bond to one person, and one person only.

“It’s not like, you know, a dog or a cat,” she says. “They’re sad but they can adapt to another person because they’re domestic. Sam is not domestic.” She strokes his neck, gently, and his tiny foot wiggles. “He’s a wild animal that has chosen to accept me.”

***

Two days later, when I log onto the Squirrel Board, a post just below the flashing banner on the page catches my eye. It’s titled “Sammy’s Thread.” With a sense of dread, I click. There, in round, gray letters, is Gayle’s message.

“This is the worst post on the worst day of my life,” it begins. “My precious Sammy passed this morning.”

Gayle had done everything she knew how to do, and so had the vets. But it hadn’t been enough. “Godspeed my most precious, beloved Sammy,” she wrote. “You changed my life forever and I will mourn your loss until we meet again, I hit the lottery the day you came into my life, and I feel like I lost my heart and soul today.” At the end: “You are, and always will be, a success story for the books.”

Below her post are dozens of replies. Users who’d met Sammy in real life shared favorite memories of his antics; those who’d followed him from thousands of miles away described photos they’d enjoyed. “Go be free and run and climb in the tallest trees where there is no more pain, fear or heartache!” wrote RockyPops. “Bless you SammysMom.”

“Gayle, I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am about this sad news,” wrote HRT4SQRLS. “Sammy has a part in every squirrel that ever came through your home and now lives in the trees. That’s quite a legacy he has.” From Gayle’s friend Nancy, who lives in New York: “Sammy, you were so loved. Gayle, you are so loved. I’m a phone call away.”

That afternoon, I walk around feeling devastated. When friends ask what’s wrong, I don’t know how to explain that I’m sad because a squirrel died. How do I say, it’s not just a squirrel! It’s the fact that someone I care about loved something so much. That there are all these people out there who donate their lives to loving these tiny, strange things, and to honoring that affection in each other.

Before bed, I log back onto the forum. Messages for Sammy are still pouring in, but there’s a new thread at the top of the page. It includes two pictures of Grover. In the first, he’s a wrinkly gray blob with fluid-filled lumps on his head; in the second, an alert, fully formed squirrel, staring affectionately up at the camera. “This boy started out so poorly and has blossomed into a bright spot in a very dark time,” Gayle wrote. “He will never be in the trees, but he is a joyful boy who brings happiness in a desperate time of sorrow.” She’s attached a YouTube link, with the caption, “Look at how amazing he has become!”

I click on the link. It’s a video of Grover perched on the couch. He hobbles over to a pillow with a red squirrel on it and flings himself on top. His position is precarious, constantly teetering on descent, but he looks thrilled. In the background, I can hear Gayle breathing quietly.

***

When I visit a month later, in mid-December, Gayle’s living room is oddly silent. It takes me a second to realize why: The army of squirrels in the front hall cage haven’t worked themselves into their usual frenzy in response to my entrance. A few throw me contemptuous looks, but nobody lunges. It seems several months of my loitering have convinced them I am not, in fact, a threat.

Instead, I receive a different kind of greeting. Closing the door, Gayle hands me a furry bundle: Grover, more or less asleep, with his tail curled over his face.

This time, my flash of panic lasts only a moment. Confident that I won’t drop him or be viciously maimed, I sink into the couch with my charge.

Things here have calmed down a little since early fall. There are no more squirrel babies being born, so no recent arrivals, and those still in the house are settling in for the long winter. Gayle looks relaxed; today’s squirrel-print sweatshirt reads, “Every little thing is gonna be alright.”

On the mantle, nestled between the squirrel-related tchotchkes, there’s a new item: the small wooden box that holds Sammy’s ashes. Carved into the lid are an etching of his footprint and a short poem that Gayle recited to him every night before he fell asleep.

Looking down at the spazzy squirrel conked out in my lap, I think: Keep a list of all those you can save. On this, I’m sure, Gayle’s got it right.