A capitol squirrel

By Phill Brooks
    A few decades ago, Missouri's Senate had a unique visitor—a baby squirrel. Harvey's chamber appearance was unplanned.
    Arriving to the Capitol late one day, I entered the Senate chamber with Harvey just before adjournment to make sure I'd not missed anything of major news significance. But Harvey created a commotion.

    The baby squirrel regularly would curl up in my shirt pocket eating a walnut then falling asleep. So I figured a brief visit to the Senate after adjournment would not be a problem.
    Harvey proved me wrong. I should have known these creatures are completely unpredictable.
    While in the Senate after adjournment, Harvey poked his head out of my shirt pocket while I was talking with the Senate secretary, Terry Spieler.
    His appearance created what I suspect was the chamber's first wild-animal commotion. Terry shrieked. And until she retired, she jokingly would admonish me for bringing Harvey into the Senate.
    Harvey came into the lives of my wife and me earlier that spring when one of our cats carried him home after a strong storm had blown him out of his nest.
    Initially, I left him by the trunk of a backyard tree hoping his mother would retrieve him. It did not happen.
    Just a few weeks later, we recovered another baby squirrel outside the Capitol. Tourist traffic left no possibility of recovery by his mother.
    We named him Sam. So, my wife and I had a summer-long adventure transitioning Harvey and Sam to the wild.
    We quickly discovered the complexities of feeding a special formula with eye-droppers to some of the most frantic animals I've encountered.
    We also learned how to deal with teeth and claws that are as sharp as hypodermic needles.
    It's not that squirrels are vicious. They actually are quite sociable. But they don't realize the injuries they can inflict.
    It was a complicated process that required hours of research to adjust them to the outdoors. Initially, they were fed in our kitchen and then returned to a cage in our family room.
    As they grew and the weather got warmer, they were moved to our screened-in porch and then to a backyard tree with the cage door left open. To our surprise, Harvey and Sam kept spending their nights in that cage despite their freedom.
    My wife remembers how they used their teeth to pull the cloth over them to sleep in warmth. Because of their confidence in our presence, we saw how squirrels learn to build nests.
    Eventually, they abandoned their cage to live in one of the nests. But they always jumped onto our shoulders when we came by, maybe for walnuts.
    Our adventure with Harvey and Sam ended when they left in late fall.
    Maybe it was to find females or maybe it was a pattern described by Lewis and Clark about the migration of North American squirrels.
    But I'll always remember the gift I'm sure they left which we discovered the day after the last time we saw them.
    It was an uneaten walnut on a window ledge of our family room where the two squirrels initially had stayed before they were old enough to deal with colder night temperatures.
    No squirrel fearful of humans would have approached that window. And Harvey and Sam never would have left a walnut uneaten without a reason.
    Because of Harvey and Sam, I continue to maintain corn feeders in my backyard for squirrels.
    Just a few years ago, we discovered a couple of other abandoned baby squirrels in the charcoal bin of a BBQ grill. Unlike Harvey and Sam, their eyes were not yet open. So, I was more confident their mom would retrieve them.
    Sure enough, the next day we discovered the mother had moved her babies.
    As for Harvey's Capitol visit, Missouri's Senate still does not have any rule prohibiting squirrels on the chamber floor.
    But the Senate did adopt a rule banning reporters from the chamber-floor press table. So, in a way, squirrels are more respected in Missouri's Senate than journalists.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.