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Spartacus Is Free

We let our squirrel go yesterday. Well, I shouldn’t use the word “our”, since we never thought of him as a pet. Like all the other critters that have wandered along at one point or another, this squirrel, who we named Spartacus, is an acquaintance and a friend.
I found him a few months ago, standing in the middle of the alley behind our house. He was weak and dehydrated, and probably wouldn’t have survived the night had I not picked him up. The only reason I was able to pick him up was that when I stopped in front of him in a Land Rover, he didn’t offer to move. When I got out and stomped my foot near him, he didn’t run. He just looked at me. Then he moved slowly over to my foot and put his front paws on my shoe, and looked up at me. I held down my hand and he crawled into it. He curled up tight, as if feeling protected. At that moment I decided that the Universe had sent him to me for help.
I named him Spartacus because of the way he stared down Land Rover. Sure, maybe he was weak and dehydrated and couldn’t do much of anything else, but it was still a striking image for me. I’ll always see in my mind’s eye that little guy standing there in the road, just watching this huge car bear down on him.
Anyway, we took him in and nursed him back to health. He turned out to be quite a handful. Unlike almost everything I’d read about squirrels, he was friendly, playful and sociable. Yes, he binded with us, which all the do-gooder, know-it-all critter “experts” say is a cruel thing to do to a wild animal. I figure those people can bite me. Hell, they can come over to my house and dine from my toilet. I would never intentionally go out and try to capture a wild animal to keep as a pet. But when the Universe sends you a critter to take care of, you step up to the plate – whiny do-gooders be damned.
Spartacus lived in our bedroom for awhile. When he was small we kept him in a cage, but as he got bigger we would leave the cage open in the daytime and let him have the run of the bedroom. We only put him in the cage at night so that the cats wouldn’t make a snack of him while we slept. Eventually that wasn’t working at all, so we let him have the run of an empty bedroom in the house. But eventually even that wasn’t enough, and we began to have sharp pangs of guilt about him being cooped up in that room all day, waiting for us to come in and interact with him. For an animal that’s not supposed to have any social skills, he sure loved to see us walk in through that door. We had a hard time getting away from, because he insisted on sitting on our shoulders or sitting in our hands and playing with our fingers. And when we sat him down and tried to get away from him, he would leap upon our shoulders. Or, failing that, he would chase us to the door.
But we never wanted him as a pet. We wanted him to be real, honest to goodness squirrel. So we decided to start taking him out on our large, screened-in back porch, to get him used to, in stages, the idea of being outside eventually. When we started doing that, I don’t think I’d ever seen a critter that happy. He was excited about being out there on the porch. It was like his instincts kicked in and he just knew that he was supposed to be out there. I’ll always carry a cherished memory of me of sitting out there in a chair near the screen with Spartacus laying on my shoulder, both of us enjoying the breeze and just soaking it all in.
But, of course, it wasn’t enough for Spartacus. The next day when Victoria took him outside, he slipped through a hole in the screen. He came back in. But he knew where that hole was at, and he didn’t want to be confined to the porch. We brought him in that night, just in case, but we knew that we couldn’t keep him contained any longer. As much as we might worry and fret about his welfare and safety, we knew that we were going to have to let him make up his own mind about what he was going to do.
Last Monday we took him out on the porch and let him stay out there all day. He hung out with us for a bit, and then he went right through that hole in the screen. He spent the day exploring the fence and staying close to the porch. He stood on the roof of the porch and loudly shouted something in squirrel language that I translated as “I am Spartacus!” He stayed close to the porch that day, so when it got dark we wrangled him and brought him back inside. Just in case. But on Tuesday morning, when we took him back out on the porch, his exploration accelerated. He went right through the screen and ventured out onto the fence, but went farther out and discovered the trees. After that there was no turning back. Though he stopped by a couple of times during the day, for the most part had didn’t come back. By the time the sun was going down and he hadn’t returned, we were beginning to be concerned. He didn’t come back. So Spartacus spent his first night in the wild as a free squirrel, while we spent the night fretting about whether or not we’d done the right thing.
This morning the Universe brought us consolation. This morning when Victoria went out on the porch to check on things, Spartacus was on the porch, sitting on the little tree we’d made for him, eating a nut. He’d brought a friend, too, who we decided to call Whitey because of his white front paws. Whitey wasn’t about to come over to us, but he didn’t seem very concerned about our presence, going on about his business of raiding the food we’d left out there for Spartacus. We figured that any friend of Spartacus’ was a friend of ours, so Whitey was welcomed. I played with Spartacus for ten minutes or so. He jumped on my shoulder and plopped down in my hands for a good bout of finger wrestling. It was just like old times for a while there. But while Spartacus was hanging out with us, Whitey wandered out through the screen and back up into the trees. After a few minutes we heard Whitey raising hell up there like only squirrels can do. Spartacus heard this, immediately jumped from my shoulder onto the fake tree, went through the screen, across the fence, and up the tree to where Whitey was.
That’s where Spartacus has been all the day. In the trees, somewhere. Which is where he is supposed to be, I think. Spartacus obviously knows that he can come and go on the porch as he pleases. He also knows that we’ll keep food out there for him. And for his friend, Whitey, too. The last time I saw Spartacus today was when he and Whitey came down one of the big trees and were foraging for nuts in the flower bed. That brought me peace. It was obvious how happy our little buddy is. And unlike last night, when Victoria and I both conjured up images in our minds of Spartacus shivering, afraid and alone, in the dark, now we know that he’s not alone at all. He has a friend. He’s free. And he’s happy.
I’m grateful for this lesson that the Universe has afforded me, that has so reminded me of the wonder of life. And while some people I know might make jokes about rodents and bushy tails being the only thing that differentiates Spartacus from a rat, I’ve been gifted with a reminder of the joy and reverence of life, and the sheer possibility of being. If I never see Spartacus again, I’ll have peace in my heart that we did the right thing. Both in picking him up when he needed us, as well as letting him go when he needed that, as well. I’ve also been given a wonderful gift, in that now until the rest of my days, whenever I hear a squirrel raising hell in a tree, I will wonder if he’s shouting out to the world, “I am Spartacus!”
Rest easy, my little friend. Be happy. Be free.

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