The economy has been tough on everyone, even the squirrel lady.
After 12 years of caring for injured, orphaned and sick squirrels, Karen Clark is asking for donations and volunteers to keep her operation going.
"The economy has hit us, and I can't continue taking them in myself,'' she said. "It's just costing me too much to feed them.''
Clark took in 320 squirrels last year and released most of them back into the wild through her nonprofit, Lovely Lita's Sheltering Tree Foundation (squirrellady.com). She raises the babies at her home in Tampa and cares for 125 permanently disabled squirrels at her property in Plant City.
Until recently, Clark's husband, Bill, an embryologist, covered most of the bill for food, medicine, cages and other supplies, which run about $10 per week per squirrel. Then, his in-vitro fertilization business dropped and he could no longer provide for the squirrels.
Clark needs foster families to take in squirrels, nurse them back to health and prepare for their return to the wild, a process that involves keeping the squirrels in outdoor cages for a few months to reacclimate them to the environment.
It's a rewarding, but difficult, job.
Susan Baker has been a foster squirrel mom for about six years, mostly taking in eastern gray squirrels brought to the Tampa Bay Emergency Veterinary Service in Tampa. She prefers the "pinkies,'' the hairless, pink-colored newborns whose eyes haven't opened.
"A lot of people don't like them because you have to get up with them every two hours to feed them, but I love them,'' she said. "It's a neat thing to raise them and then let them go in my back yard. They come back and feed with me every day.''
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We see them climbing just about every tree and leaping from limb to limb. And while most people aren't too passionate about these fluffy-tailed rodents, we are curious. Here are some grey squirrel facts, from Tampa's squirrel lady, Karen Clark.
Do they bite?
Yes. Squirrels generally stay away from people and pets but, if cornered, will bite. Clark has been bitten hundreds of times and attests that the bites hurt like heck. She advises against hand-feeding squirrels because they don't see well close up. Fingers look like carrots.
Do squirrels carry rabies?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says it would be "really unusual'' for a squirrel — or even a mouse or a rat — to have rabies, but it does happen. Clark has never heard of a squirrel that has passed along rabies.
What should I do if bitten?
Clean it well and consider getting a tetanus shot if you haven't had one in a while. "I've only had one infection from a squirrel in 12 years, and I get bitten all the time,'' Clark said. "In that case, she bit down to the bone.''
Do squirrels spread fleas?
They can, but not any more so than feral cats or dogs. Clark treats her squirrels with Revolution and has no flea problems.
Any estimate on the squirrel population?
Nothing official, but suffice it to say, there's a bunch. Squirrels are found anywhere with a lot of trees and far outnumber people in the United States.
When is baby season?
Here in Florida it starts now, peaks in July and August, and continues through November. Most litters have two to six young.
How do you keep squirrels from getting into attics?
It's difficult. As rodents, squirrels are constantly chewing on things to keep their teeth from growing too long. Inside attics, they often chew through wood and electrical wires, sometimes shorting out appliances and creating a fire hazard.
The best protection is routinely checking your building for holes and wrapping wiring and pipes with a soft material that's less attractive to chew. Exterminators can remove squirrels for a fee, but the critters often come back.
What about keeping squirrels away from plants and bushes?
Squirrels love flowers, so move plants out of reach or spray them with a taste repellent.