by Roey Leonardi
In February of 2016, my parents prepared to load my three sisters, our two dogs, and me into our Suburban. We were about to drive home from a family reunion in the heart of the Lowcountry, the ACE Basin. Here, we had gathered on a piece of land that served as a hunt club during deer and turkey season, in a black-shuttered house that sat stock-still among the eerie swaying of Spanish moss in bare trees. The sun turned the dry grass gold, and late winter wind rippled through 5,000 acres of oak and pine, over Social Hall Creek and the great blue herons balancing in its glistening cold.
As we packed up, my mother spotted something climbing along the latticework at the base of the house. It was small and silver-white, with a long, tapered tail. We pointed and called out to one another, trying to decide what it was. A rodent of some kind, with short fur and black eyes. It lost its grip and fell to the ground. Slowly, it limped towards us, chirring deeply. We watched, fully expecting it to spook and run off, as it approached my younger sister Sophia’s boot. It sniffed at the toe before climbing on, paused atop her foot, then made its way up the side of her leg.
She was startled but did not cry out, standing still until my grandfather carefully removed it. The animal was calm and gentle in his hand as we gathered around to peer down at it, stroking its head with timid fingers. Up close, the fur was charcoal underneath and frosted white, turning black at the face and brightening at the tip of its tail. One of the hind legs had been injured. The fur had been torn, revealing raw, red flesh.
My father identified it as a baby fox squirrel. Immediately, Sophia asked if we should take it home. He was reluctant. At the time, we knew little to nothing of how to care for a wild animal.
Still, she pleaded with him. “We never do anything crazy,” she argued.
It was true the squirrel needed help; it was small and alone and had a severe open wound that would surely put it at risk for infection and predation.
My grandfather placed it on the ground to see if it would run off. Instead, it crawled back up Sophia’s leg. She took it off twice more, and each time it returned. This, she claimed, was a sign that it needed us. None of us felt inclined to argue with “signs” interpreted by a twelve year-old girl, so the squirrel rode back to Charleston curled up in Sophia’s lap, lulled to sleep.
Sophia named him Ricky Bobby after Will Ferrell’s character in Talladega Nights, which at first I protested, but in the end it seemed fitting (after all, why not name a suburban fox squirrel after a fictional redneck race car driver?)
That first night, we sat with Ricky Bobby on our hearth. He crawled up our arms and settled down in the hood of Sophia’s sweatshirt. He slept in her room, in our dog Lucy’s old kennel, which we packed with hamster bedding to make it cozy and soft. After researching the care of infant squirrels, we purchased special formula for rodents, which Ricky Bobby drank from a syringe, propped up between his paws like a baby bottle.
After a few weeks, we began to let him out to climb the twisting oak trees in our backyard, calling him back to us with a shake of his formula bottle. Soon, his leg had mostly healed. His thin tail grew into a long, bushy plume of black and silver. We introduced new foods: tomatoes, avocado, pine nuts. My mother would let him out for longer periods of time, and he’d go right up to the doors of neighbors, letting them pet and feed him. Ricky Bobby was soon known and loved by nearly all the families on our street.
My mother had fallen completely in love with him. He would jump down from a tree to sit on her shoulder and eat from her hand, nuzzling up against her neck, and for this alone she was willing to tolerate chewed up baseboards and hamster bedding strewn on Sophia’s floor, which she swept up without complaint. My father liked to walk into the living room or kitchen with Ricky perched nonchalantly on his shoulder. Even the dogs treated him gently, regarding him with mild curiosity. Months passed, and Ricky Bobby grew more independent. Still, most nights, he returned to our back door, scratching to be let in.
One night in July, however, Ricky Bobby did not return. Soon, several days had passed, with no sight of him. Neighbors called, texted, and fretted. My mother feared that a hawk had snatched him up from our yard.
After two weeks, my mother heard a report from a fellow swim team mom of a tame fox squirrel in a neighborhood four or five miles away. It seemed unlikely that this would be Ricky, since he would have had to cross several major roads to get there. However, when shown a picture, my mother was convinced it was him. She drove us all out to call for Ricky Bobby on a street where he had recently been seen. We walked in the heat, calling out his name in the hopes he might recognize it and shaking a bag of his favorite food, pine nuts; but with no sight of him, we headed home.
About a week later, my older sister Grace saw a picture of a fox squirrel posted on social media by a worker at the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, within a mile of the previous sighting. My mother drove us once again to look for him, joined by my grandparents. The Diocese was a multi-building campus next to the Ashley River. We walked along the winding pathways, again calling out and shaking the bag of pine nuts while studying the live oaks. I doubted we would be able to find him among all those trees. It seemed he could easily have been anywhere by then.
Most of us were ready to give up and head home when my mother caught sight of him sprawled out on a high branch. His ears perked up when we called his name. He struggled down the tree, dragging his clearly broken leg behind him. When he was unable to descend any further, Sophia insisted on climbing up to him, although the tree was covered in poison oak. She reached up and he climbed down onto her arm. We took him home overjoyed and in shock. He returned to Sophia’s room, where he slept in her bed like he had as a baby.
My mother scheduled an appointment with an exotic pets veterinarian to try to mend his leg. The vet informed us that Ricky Bobby had run away to seek a mate, and would continue to do so. He was too domestic, at that point, to thrive outside the confines of our yard, and we felt it would be wrong to limit him to a life indoors. Ultimately, the best decision seemed to be to contact Keepers of the Wild, a local wildlife preservation organization. Sophia and my mother, who undoubtedly had the closest bond with Ricky, took him there in his own cage, which they donated along with blankets and towels that would surround him with the familiar scent of our home. They said a tearful goodbye, assured by the head of the organization that they were making the right decision and Ricky Bobby would be in good hands. Afterward, he was permanently relocated to Magnolia Gardens, a nearby plantation that cares for and showcases wildlife for educational purposes.
Recently, my family drove out to visit him. He is located in a large enclosure in the petting zoo. Near the entrance there is a bulletin board with many of the animals’ pictures on it. On his, printed in large letters, is the name Sophia gave him, which is still used by the workers and visitors. It was she who found him in the rear corner of the zoo, curled up asleep in a little house through which we could see the white fur of his tail. When we woke him, he sat straight up and peered out the door at us. We all laughed at how large he had grown, his body plump and his coat rich and soft.
“You should see his tail,” a worker remarked when we explained that we were the family who rescued him. My father reminisced then on how thin it had been when we first found him.
“Slicked down like a rat’s,” he said.
“He likes to climb up there,” she told us, pointing up to the chicken wire on the top of the enclosure, “and the wild squirrels come visit and play with him.”
She went on to describe how he’d loved the snow, which had fallen plentifully in Charleston for the first time in years just a few weeks earlier. She told us how he goes crazy with excitement when given a ball or something to play with, and how he spends all day climbing the branches in his habitat. “He was so small when he first came,” she said, “and sweet. We had some good times together.”
My mother answered, smiling, “So did we.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.