An encounter with Rocky, the flying squirrel
In the mid-1970s I lived with five other guys in an old brick house owned by the Millers. The family occupied the first floor and our rents paid for separate rooms on the second floor with the use of a common kitchen and bath. We called our modest accommodations Miller Manor.
The kitchen and bathroom were at one end of a long hall, off which were the various rooms. My room was at the opposite end of the hall from the kitchen. The one next to me belonged to a friendly lug of a kid I’ll call Jason who was a second-string quarterback for the university’s football team.
I was in my first year of graduate school and had just started a project investigating the fleas parasitizing flying squirrels. Exactly how does one approach such a project? Well, I built a set of wooden boxes with removable tops and access holes large enough for the squirrels. Then I fixed them about 20 feet up the trunks of some likely trees in a wooded area recommended by my adviser, and waited.
Flying squirrels are a lot more common than is generally understood, but because they are exclusively nocturnal and quite small, most people have never seen one. In any case, two of my six boxes were soon occupied by the cavity-nesting squirrels and a third was adopted as a defecatorium, which is exactly what it sounds like–the squirrels’ toilet area.
Once I realized what was happening, I layered the bottom of the defecatorium with cotton and it quickly became my best place to collect fleas.
Perhaps because of the squirrels’ diminutive size (you can cup one in your hand), their nocturnal habits or the popularity of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, none of the guys at the Manor really believed me when I tried to explain what I was doing. So, one afternoon in early winter, I brought one home.
Unlike red squirrels, which will bite your finger off at the elbow if given a chance, flying squirrels are relatively docile. Although they don’t hibernate through the winter like groundhogs or chipmunks, they will often cluster together in a tree cavity for warmth as they sleep during the daylight hours. In one of my boxes I found four totally zoned-out squirrels and I pocketed one of them.
This is not something I’d ever consider doing today. It is unethical to play with a wild animal as if it were some sort of furry toy, but I was young and stupid. What could possibly go wrong?
It was a Sunday and back at the Manor, Jason had a few of his teammates over to watch the Buffalo Bills on his set. Naturally, everyone went nuts when I brought out the little guy who they of course named Rocky. “Baker, can you get him to fly? Can you?”
Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, they glide on furry flaps of skin called the patagium that stretches from the wrists to their ankles. Flights of up to several hundred feet have been recorded, though most glides are far shorter during which they use their flat, impossibly soft tails as rudders.
We all piled into the bathroom and closed the door. I placed Rocky on my arm about five feet from the tub and, sure enough, he sailed right to its rim.
“Do it again!” So, basking in my new fame I tried the same trick from a bit farther away. But the rodent misjudged the distance and slipped off the rim onto the carpeted floor.
No problem, the door was closed. Rocky explored his new environs while I lectured on squirrel biology. Then he went behind a large metal cabinet and didn’t come out. Moving the cabinet, we discovered a hole in the wall through which the water pipes for the tub and sink passed. He was gone, lost somewhere between the inner and outer walls of the Miller’s house.
There was nothing to be done. I was an idiot and went back to my room.
About 40 minutes later, however, shouts of “Baker! Rocky! Baker!” followed by a period a thundering and door slamming brought me racing into Jason’s room where I found the better part of a half-ton of the team’s front line with their full weight pressed up against the closet door.
Apparently Rocky had exited the hole in the bathroom and came wandering down the hallway, checking things out. The screaming began when he paused at Jason’s doorway after which, strangely enough, he ran into the room.
Opening the closet door, we found Rocky sitting wide-eyed on the floor with a look that plainly said, “Holy crap, dude; what was that all about?”
I couldn’t rightly answer. But I did apologize to the little fellow before taking him home.