'Agent Squirrel': Her Passion Is Caring for Bushy-Tailed Critters
For some, a house full of squirrels might seem a little nuts. But for Marie Strouse, it's home.
Strouse runs Squirrel Central, a nonprofit nursery and rehabilitation organization for injured and abandoned squirrels, out of her house. Her modest home is adorned with plenty of photos of squirrels and other memorabilia.
Deer antlers - squirrels chew them for calcium - sit around near the fireplace. A drey, or squirrel nest, sits atop the mantle. A handbag with a squirrel design hangs on a coat tree near the front door, and various memorabilia adorn the walls. And those are just a small sample of the squirrel-related items she owns, thanks to her friends and family.
"I get stuffed animals, I have a squirrel plate from Seagrove, I get lots of books and cards, T-shirts, squirrel jewelry," she says. "From my biker friends I have Secret Agent Squirrel patches to put on my leather jacket. I have all kinds of squirrel things."
And then there are the live animals.
Strouse, known as "Agent Squirrel," is one of 12 licensed animal rehabilitators in Moore County. She specializes in squirrels. At any one time, she can have as many as 20 squirrels in her care.
"We are all kind of eccentric," she says of animal rehabilitators, "But if I can be a benefit to the community, then I am happy to do it, because I know it is so frustrating if you have an animal and don't know what to do, or who to call to help."
There are more than 270 varieties of squirrels worldwide. In North Carolina, the most common variety is the gray squirrel. Strouse specializes in grays, flying squirrels and fox squirrels. In the six years she has lived in Moore County, Strouse estimates she has taken in hundreds of them.
She has always had a passion for animals, eventually getting involved with animal rescue and rehabilitation eight years ago as a volunteer while living in Washington, D.C.
The first animals she cared for were raccoons. But those mischievous, often destructive animals weren't the right fit for Strouse, so she switched to squirrels.
"We're a good match," she says. "I am very uptight and high-strung, and they are very uptight and high-strung."
Two years into her career as an animal rehabilitator, Strouse discovered that living in Washington created issues for a rehabilitator. For example, there was no real place to release the animals once they were ready to return to the wild.
"If I released an animal in the District (of Columbia) I'd just be releasing another dumpster diver," she says.
In 2004, she decided that if she was to rehab and ultimately release squirrels, she needed to be in a more rural setting, so she packed up and moved to North Carolina, settling on a 1.5-acre piece of property in southern Moore County. Her older-model home sits on a secluded, wooded lot. Dotting the property are three 6-foot-tall, homemade, wooden release cages. There are plenty of trees in the yard and seeds and nuts galore on the ground.
Inside, in the kitchen are two more small containers that hold the younger squirrels. Medical milk formula and syringes are neatly laid out on a countertop. A 50-pound bag of seed sits open in one corner. The window screen to the door has a hole that was created by squirrels eager for a few walnuts or almonds.
"It's the prefect place," she says.
"A Passion Ever Since"
Strouse remembers having plenty of pets as a child growing up in the D.C. area. Guinea pigs and rabbits - and even a pet chicken - were the norm rather than the exception. As an adult, she noticed that she had a knack for finding animals that had been injured or abandoned.
"I would find all these animals, and I would have all this injured and abandoned wildlife and I was in a panic," Strouse says. "I didn't know what to do for it, and I didn't know how to care for it."
She eventually discovered the Wildlife Rescue League of Northern Virgina, an animal rehabilitation organization, and began taking animals she found to that group.
If she didn't find the animals, they seemed to find her.
"I had an English basement apartment in the District, and I was at my computer when I heard something in the house," Strouse says. "I went into the kitchen, and there was a baby squirrel sitting on a boombox. It had chewed a hole in my screen and come inside."
Her experience with her uninvited guest came just two months before she made her toughest career decision.
"It was crazy how I kept running across these animals," she says. "So I took it as a sign. I thought, 'Maybe this is where you're supposed to be.'"
So she ditched a career as a paralegal and decided to volunteer with the Wildlife Rescue League of Northern Virginia. She started out as a transporter, driving unwanted animals to rehabilitators. And in a few short months, the rehabilitators saw her interest in the job and recruited her to join their ranks.
"Its been a passion ever since," she says.
Rehabilitating squirrels can be more than a full-time job.
Strouse is her busiest in the early spring, from March to May, and then in the late summer/early fall, from the end of August to October.
"Normally when people start to rehab them," she says, "they realize how much work it is and quit after two or three days."
During a busy time, Strouse can have upwards of 25 squirrels. Caring for animals comes at a great monetary cost too. There are cages, food, medicine, water bottles, towels, blankets, syringes, baby formula and the occasional veterinarian bill.
"Just to get started was a few thousand dollars," Strouse says. "To be truthful, I've never added it (the cost) up because I don't want to know how much it really is."
She relies on donations of supplies like blankets, some food and cages.
Many of the animals brought to her are found by children and pets. Some are merely days old. Others have injuries or other physical limitations.
"Mom squirrels know before the eyes open if their baby is going to be blind or deaf or have some sort of heart problem or other internal issue," Strouse says, "and if she feels it isn't strong enough, she'll kick it out of the nest."
Some of the animals Strouse cares for are in such dire straits that they don't survive. She has cared for squirrels that are both blind and deaf, but one of the most memorable cases is that of Foxy, a rare fox squirrel that came to her with a brain injury.
Strouse dutifully nursed Foxy back to health and was able to release her back into the wild.
When squirrels have problems she can't identify, Strouse has a network of experts to call, including the local veterinarians at Yadkin Park Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic. She also consults other animal rehabilitation experts.
"She (Foxy) made it for at least two years," Strouse says. "She would come back to visit from time to time. Knowing I helped is a good feeling."
Strouse said it takes about 12 weeks for squirrels to mature. They are born hairless, helpless and blind. A newborn squirrel is about the length of a human pinkie finger and weighs just a few ounces. Two weeks after birth, the "pinkies' begin to darken as their fur begins to form. In a matter of weeks, their eyes open and they begin to resemble adult squirrels, except for their tails.
"Their tails get fluffy overnight," she says. "It just happens."
After about 10 weeks, the animals are sexually mature. Then, if they are healthy, they are transferred to an outdoor holding pen before their ultimate release.
Strouse said the squirrels tell her when it is time to go back into the wild.
"If they are in the pen and they look completely frustrated and begin pacing, then they gotta be let go," she says.
During their time with Strouse, the squirrels can be quite a handful.
When she receives a squirrel, Strouse first assesses the animals condition. She feeds it and hydrates it as necessary and then gives the animal a once-over, looking for broken bones, bruising or other signs of physical distress. One of the worst conditions is malocclusion, which is the improper meeting of the upper and lower teeth.
"Their teeth can go straight into their brain," she says.
One thing Strouse doesn't worry about is rabies. Usually, she says, any rabid animal that would bite a squirrel ills the animal instantly. A bigger concern o her is fleas.
As babies and young adults, squirrels need lots of attention.
"It is a completely full-time gig," she says. "Getting up throughout the night, not sleeping long hours and needing short naps in the afternoon is the norm."
When squirrels get older, they can be quite destructive. They are chewers, and with small but powerful jaws and sharp claws they can inflict quite a bit of damage to almost any object, including humans.
"Being bitten hurts," Strouse says, "Squirrels have a lot of bite pressure - enough to crack a nut or a bone in a human hand. But what really hurts is the little claws. They are like razor blades. They can bring a lot of blood to the surface."
And for anybody thinking about having a squirrel for a pet, Strouse strongly advises against it.
"I have no squirrel pets," she says. "And by the end of squirrel season I can't wait until they are gone. They scratch, and when they go into the release cage they bite, don't want anything to do with me. When they reach sexual maturity, they can get very aggressive. My hands are always sore from hand-feeding these guys. They tear you up. They jump on my head, they climb down my face, and I have to wear goggles all the time."
Strouse is a motorcycle enthusiast. When each squirrel season ends, she needs time to recharge. To do that, she will head out to a bike rally, or just take off for a little fresh air. But it isn't long before she is ready for another season.
"By the end of the season, I don't want to see another squirrel," she says, "but in just a couple of months I have the fever again."
Contact Tom Embrey at email@example.com.
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