'Squirrel Man' a friend to wildlife

By Joe Moskowitz
His real name is Chris Durham. He’s an actor, but to some in the big city, he’s “The Squirrel Man of New York.”

If you run into him in Manhattan or at his second home in Roxbury, don’t be afraid. He got that title because he rehabilitates injured animals he finds in the city and then releases them here into the wild.

Durham’s interest in becoming an animal “rehabber” began in 1994. He says when he would walk his dogs in an Upper West Side park, people would ask him what they can do to help an orphaned squirrel or injured bird that they found in the park.

Interest sparked
Four years later, he started talking with a producer who was working on a documentary called “Wild City.” It was about the abundant wildlife in New York. Durham decided to take a test and became a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Certified Animal Rehabilitation Officer.
He says there aren’t very many people who will do it. He works about 10 hours a week and can have more than a dozen animals in his apartment. He doesn’t get paid for it and there is a huge burnout problem, in part because so many of the animals die and he finds that depressing. Very few animal hospitals can or will care for wild animals. They don’t get paid either. One person who does help, and quite often, is Grand Gorge vet, Dr. Dan Sullivan.

Durham has some advice on what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal. If it is a baby squirrel and it is on the ground this time of year, if it doesn’t appear hurt, leave it there, its mother will probably come back.

Animal care steps
If you rescue any animal, the first thing you should do is try and make it warm. The last thing you should do is feed it. That might kill it. Rabies is extremely rare and has not been found in any squirrels since he started rehabbing. But if you do get bitten, see a doctor immediately. Fleas are everywhere, but are easy to get rid of.

He says he gets very upset when an animal he is rehabbing dies, but he says it doesn’t bother him if a hawk were to fly away with a squirrel right after he releases it into the wild. Nature is cruel. A squirrel in the wild is lucky to live four or five years, while in captivity they can live as long as 20 years. However, he says don’t try and make one into a pet. They are wild animals. He says baby squirrels are adorable, but after about 14 weeks they can’t stand being caged and will tear your house to pieces trying to get out.

One exception is Sebastian. He’s a squirrel who has become his pet. That’s because Sebastian has a neurological disorder and wouldn’t survive on its own.

In addition to Durham, Sebastain has something else on his side, Durham’s dogs totally ignore all of the animals he brings home.