Monday, 23 September 2013

Raising Rob - The world's cutest baby palm squirrel

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Read the article about me and Rob, an orphaned baby palm squirrel that I raised whilst filming in Sri Lanka for a BBC wildlife series. The article was published in Mail Online on 17th September and it spawned many more articles, including Die Welt, 20Minuten, Telegraph, and TV appearances around the world. Rob is now one of the most famous squirrels on the planet and my images of him have been seen by millions of people. This is Rob's story.

Rawr! Little Rob gets his voice as he prepares to take on the world.

I've now been in Sri Lanka for 3 weeks filming leopards and ancient temples for a BBC2 wildlife series called Monsoon. Two weeks ago, at 3am, we came back from our night shift filming in Wilpatu national park, and there in the dark was Rob the baby palm squirrel laying on the floor of the hotel car park. At first I thought he was dead but then I noticed a little twitch. I scooped up his weak and cold body and warmed him in my hands. I presumed that he had either fallen out of the nest, or had been kicked out by a sibling. My first hope was to reunite him with his mother. I put him into a secure spot as high as I could in the tree that I presumed he had fallen from. I covered him in a layer of tissue to help him keep warm and I waited. I had hoped that mum would be looking for him and would hear his little squeaks but by morning he was still there.
 9th Sept: "Cute baby Sri Lankan Palm Squirrel fell out of its nest. I've put him higher for mum to find. Keeping watch..."

I named him Rob after a colleague who had found himself in a difficult predicament on the same day.
The crew and I searched the area for any sign of a nest or other palm squirrels, but we didn't spot any. We then used our thermal camera which we are using to spot and film nocturnal animals in the park. It's great for showing warm patches where little animals are nesting. Unfortunately it showed us no thermal hotspots in any of the trees where Rob could have come from. I couldn't just leave him. He would have died if I hadn't have found him and so he became an honorary part of the crew.
 10th Sept: "Rob the orphaned baby Sri Lankan palm squirrel so tiny in my palm"
 10th Sept: "Rob the orphaned baby palm squirrel clinging to my finger - he's a lot more active today."
10th Sept "Rob the orphaned baby Sri Lankan palm squirrel seems to love sleeping in my shirt pocket "
11th Sept: "Rob explores! Hard to believe that this baby palm squirrel barely had any energy when I found him."

Feeding Rob
I've worked at animal rescue centres in the United States and I've helped to rehabilitate and reintroduce animals back to the wild. I knew the commitment that I was making. I consulted squirrel care guides online (this one was particularly useful) and then I started Rob on a dilute solution of salt and sugar to make sure that he was hydrated. I carved up a dust blower that we use for cleaning our camera sensors and used that to suck up and drip the water to him.

After a couple of days I had found a plastic syringe and moved to feeding him baby formula - which is common in this part of the world for feeding young babies. I'd read that milk was really bad for baby squirrels so I avoided that.

I know when he's had enough to drink because he squeaks and shakes head as if to say 'no more'.

12th Sept: "Feeding Rob the baby palm squirrel his breakfast"
12th Sept: "A big day for Rob the baby palm squirrel - I think it's for his bed. Tomorrow his eyes may be open for the first time".
12th Sept: "And here's Rob in seemingly his fave place - my shirt pocket! Orange baby squirrel poo stains included."
13th Sept: "Rob the baby palm squirrel is still tiny but he's quickly putting weight on"

Life amongst the crew
It's not the smoothest of worlds to grow up in as we are often travelling large distances in vehicles packed and loaded with kit, and we spend all day - and much of the night - in the field. I'm concerned about monkeys and stray dogs getting hold of him and so I tend to keep him in my breast pocket during the day so that I can keep him warm and feed him regularly. Occasionally he pops his head out, takes a peek and then snuggles back down. He started to show celebrity potential when tourists at the temples started paying him more attention then the ancient site that they had come to see.

Since he opened his eyes he's also become much more active and he doesn't like being in his box. He's jumped out more than once and to my surprise he ran straight into my hands where he curled up and fell straight asleep. He seems to be content and most relaxed when he's in the warmth of my hand, he squeaks and gently nibbles my fingers. Holding something so fragile isn't ideal when I'm trying to work! He also enjoys climbing on our cameras and sleeping in the most precarious of positions. I'm constantly watching out to make sure that he's safe. Rob is the most adorable creature that I have ever known, so cute, so precious.
13th Sept: "Rob slowly opens his eyes as the goggle eyed Yapahuwa dragon looks on"

Now that Rob the baby palm squirrel has opened his eyes he seems keen to study my camera settings.
And after all that studying Rob the baby palm squirrel is asleep on the job again!
14 Sept: Rob sleeping on the job again! It's an easy life when you're an extremely cute celebrity squirrel.
 Waiter! there's a squirrel in my tea' Cuppa & a nap for Rob the baby palm squirrel.
15th Sept: 'Tea cup carriage for Rob the baby Sri Lankan palm squirrel.
Rob in squirrel training - using me as a tree! He's starting to get very active
16th Sept "It's good to stretch! Rob the orphan baby palm squirrel at ancient Kuttam Pokuna Baths, Sri Lanka 
16th Sept: "Baby squirrel Rob snug in my hand. Apparently it's like the cosiness of the nest but it makes it difficult for me... 
17th Sept: "Rob the growing baby palm squirrel & I ready for another big Sri Lanka day."
17th Sept: "Goodnight Rob! The cutest baby palm squirrel all curled up my hand."
18th Sept: "Rob the orphaned palm squirrel may be turning into a teenager sooner than expected!"
18th Sept: "Little Rob the palm squirrel guarding our valuable Sri Lankan film rushes."
19th Sept: "Rob the orphaned baby squirrel prefers to be 'on camera'."
20th Sept: "Rob the cute baby palm squirrel discovers the comfort of the fluffy."
 20th Sept: "Little Rob the orphaned squirrel meets the Vatadage Buddah..."
20th Sept: "...and then falls asleep in Buddha's hands!"
21st Sept: "Rob in baby squirrel training preparing for a life back in the wild." My hand is always close by ready to catch him but I can't make it too easy if he is to develop and grow strong. A pampered squirrel isn't a long lived one.
21st Sept: "and ofcourse, after a bit of training Rob the baby squirrel takes a nap!"
21st Sept: "...and stretch. Rob the baby squirrel wakes up!"
21st Sept: "Little Rob knows who the real gaffer is"
22nd Sept: "Baby squirrel Rob's little smile. Still enjoying the warmth from our film rushes drive."
22nd Sept: "Baby squirrel Rob asleep at the wheel..."

When I get him out of his box in the morning he stretches, yawns and sticks his tongue out - a most adorable wake up to the world.
22nd Sept: "Each morning when I take Rob out of his box he starts the day with a cute stretch & yawn."
22nd Sept: "Rob the growing baby squirrel is getting more curious by the day. See - he is active sometimes!!"
23rd Sept: ""Wonder what this bit does" Rob the squirrel checks out our magical time-lapse machine!"

Rob's Future
Soon I return to the UK. My aim was to fatten Rob up, get him strong and then find a solution for releasing him. I can't bring him home, as much as I'd love to try. It would be best to be able to reintroduce him back to the wild.

Today I'll return Rob close to where I found him near Wilpatu national park. There's a hotel which has a large number of habituated palm squirrels that come to raid the tables when people leave breakfast. Here they're tolerated, there's plenty of food and there are trusted people who are experienced with caring for abandoned baby squirrels before slowly releasing them. 

In almost 2 weeks I've raised a healthy little squirrel and it's been a pleasure to have Rob join the crew. I'll miss my little friend and cherish the time that we spent together.

Rob seems sad to be saying goodbye.
But a growing squirrel has plenty more adventures ahead. Sooner or later a little squirrel longs to be wild... or at-least free to raid hotel restaurants when people have left breakfast!