Elena Wakeman has a husband, two kids, and a full-time job as a legal assistant. On any given day, especially in the spring, she’s also looking after anywhere from two to twenty injured or orphaned squirrels.
Warm and enthusiastic, Wakeman got into rescuing squirrels eight years ago after discovering one that had been attacked by a neighbor’s dog. She and her daughter “picked it up, put it in a box,” she remembers, and drove home.
Before they got there, the squirrel came out of shock, jumped out of the box, and started running around their minivan. “My daughter’s like, ‘It’s okay, Mom.'” They pulled into their driveway, got a butterfly net from the garage, and caught the squirrel. Then they called Friends of Wildlife (FOW).
A volunteer picked up the animal, treated it, and then brought it back a week later so they could enjoy seeing it released in Greenview Park. Wakeman and her daughter—who’s now studying zoology and philosophy at MSU—thought that was so cool.
Wakeman became a volunteer herself, got trained, and has been rescuing, rehabbing, and releasing the furry, toothy rodents ever since. She now carries the group’s “squirrel phone,” taking calls from anyone who knows of a squirrel that needs help. (Six other “placement coordinators” take calls about fawns, foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, and woodchucks.)
“I remember a horrific day in July when I had nineteen calls in one day,” Wakeman says. “Three boxes of squirrels, each a different species, on my dryer—and my family wanting dinner.” Luckily, she says, her husband “has come to like squirrels.”
FOW was founded thirty-five years ago by Pat DeLong. “I think everyone has a need to contribute,” she says. “We don’t just come into this life and just la-di-da along. You have some kind of work that you do that you feel is important.” DeLong, too, got into animal rescue by accident. She and her husband live near Dexter on a bluff overlooking the Huron River. “Raising four active, inquisitive children, wildlife was destined to be a part of our lives,” she says. Seven people attended Friends of Wildlife’s first official meeting. Now the group has 110 active volunteers. That’s down from about 135 eight years ago, mostly because, DeLong thinks, today’s economy leaves people with less time to give to volunteering.
The group operates on a budget of less than $7,000 a year, raised mostly in small donations from loyal supporters. And people often write a check, or give some cash, out of gratitude when an FOW volunteer responds to their call to help an animal, Wakeman says. Though she orchestrates the squirrel rescues, most of the animals are cared for by her crew of eighteen volunteers. “What’s cool is they all have different levels of responsibility,” she says. “For example, the people in Manchester are a couple of retired women who love the pinkies [hairless newborns]. They are the most difficult to do.” When she gets pinkies, she meets the women halfway, in Fredonia. “Once their eyes open, [the women] call back and say, ‘Can I get rid of them?'”
One of the inconveniences of the work is sharing one’s living space with wild animals. Wakeman houses squirrels in her garage, in a large cage in her backyard, and in her laundry room. She likes the laundry room best because it’s all white, which allows her to see any parasites that come inside with the animals. Fortunately, she’s not a good host for squirrel parasites: “They just bite me and die.”
For Wakeman, the worst part of animal rescue is “when you’re learning and you accidentally kill an animal.” It happened for her when a more experienced rehabber advised her to give a baby squirrel “different food, like banana or avocado, to prevent cage boredom. I thought, because I cut everything else up, I [should also] cut the banana up—and this poor little baby female choked on the banana!” Wakeman felt horrible. Now, she says, she feels she owes it to other squirrels to heal and take care of them. “Once you hold a baby anything, you have a different idea of them,” she explains. At work, her colleagues “have their pictures of their kids … I have this [photo of a] squirrel.”
Wakeman says she has had a lot more success reuniting wildlife moms with their babies since FOW switched from pagers to more reliable cell phones. The Internet has also made it easier for people to find FOW—sometimes too easy. Some people who discover friendsofwildlife.net “don’t even look at where you’re at!” she says. “This lady got us, said she had this squirrel and it had a lot of maggots in the ears. I said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but it needs to be euthanized. It is suffering.’ Then it dawned on me—it was March! A baby, with fur?”
“Where are you calling from?” Wakeman asked. “She said, ‘Fresno.’ I said, ‘California?’ She said, ‘Yeah!'”
People call FOW after finding injured animals on roadsides, and babies in nests in cars (the squeaking sound one woman heard turned out to be baby squirrels in her air filter), under boat covers, and in Old West Side garages. “We get so many calls from students,” Wakeman says. They “find them in the Law Quad, around the Diag.”
She says rescuing squirrels works well for her because her neighborhood already has a lot of them. “My neighbors would kill me if I did raccoons and opossums and released them in the neighborhood.”
If she moved to the country, Wakeman says, she would still want to work with FOW, but she’d consider switching to rabbits. “They would cost less. All [a rabbit] eats is clover, dandelion greens, and water.” And “if it hops, you can let it go.”
But while she might switch species, “it would be hard to stop doing this,” she says. “I don’t think of it as a hobby. I think of it as a vocation or a profession now.”
Wakeman and her fellow rehabbers are the kind of people who make organizations like FOW survive and run smoothly—and make the world a better place. What may come as a surprise is that by saving animals, they sometimes save people, too.
“There was this couple in Ypsi—he was a lawyer,” says Wakeman. “He [called and] said, ‘There is a squirrel in our fireplace. It watches TV with us. I don’t know how it got in there, but it won’t leave.’
“So I said, ‘I can’t help you because we are not a remove-the-animal service. We are rescue/rehab/release.’ He goes, ‘All right,’ and hangs up.
“He didn’t want to pay anybody [to remove a healthy squirrel]. So he lit a fire in the fireplace, and heard squealing. It was trapped. Then he called me back. ‘Well, now it’s burned,’ he said.”
She doesn’t like to think he hurt the animal deliberately. But whatever his motives, hers were clear. She told him, “Now I can help you.”
Wakeman drove back to Ypsi, picked up the squirrel, and named it Cinder. “I had it for a while,” she says, while it healed. But by the time she released it, “it was fine.”