Though teaching anatomy and physiology at UTC during the day, professor Kate Harrell spends her free time rehabilitating sick and injured young squirrels.
In her Signal Mountain home, Harrell has cages throughout her home and on her six acres of land to accommodate baby squirrels that have been orphaned throughout the year. Harrell can see up to 140 squirrels a year, about 70 per “baby season” in spring and fall.
“It’s really hard for me to keep track of the exact number because somebody is either coming in or sometimes they don’t make it, and that’s just the hard reality of it,” said Harrell. “They just don’t all make it.”
Rehabilitating dozens of squirrels at a given time requires a lot of time and manpower, and Harrell is thankful for the volunteer network established by Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation & Rescue.
“[Volunteering] is a really great opportunity for people that are into it because when I got into it, there wasn’t that group,” said Harrell. “I just had to scramble and figure a lout out on my own.”
There are many volunteering opportunities to those who wish to get involved, whether it be a transport job, staffing an event, purchasing fresh produce for the animals or a few hour job attempting to renest babies.
Harrell has worked as a primarily squirrel rehabilitator for the past two years on her own following a four year apprenticeship. She also has experience with rabbits, groundhogs and possums.
To become a wildlife rehabilitator, an agent from Tennessee Wildlife Association has to inspect the individual’s home and approve the space and cages for the type of animals to be housed. There also needs to be a veterinarian willing to care for the animals.
Harrell has been surprised to see the people who will call in the sick and abandoned squirrels.
“It’s definitely been an eye-opening thing to get into,” said Harrell. “You meet so many interesting people, like those big burly guys who you wouldn’t expect to care. It really helps just to break through all those stereotypes and barriers. They’ll make so many phone calls and work to get these animals help.”
One of the more memorable squirrels Harrell has taken in was from UTC’s campus.
“Last year I got a squirrel off the the UTC campus, it was up in that little quad up by the Chancellor’s office. I had been in labs all day, and I had these frantic calls from the biology department asking where I was, but they were just some babies who had definitely been orphaned,” said Harrell. “You could tell because they were dehydrated and their fur was dry and spikey. They were so thin and coming up to people. And I knew that when they were coming up to people that they were desperate and definitely orphaned. But it was fun to have an official UTC squirrel.”
When Harrell releases the squirrels after they’ve grown independent and can live off of real food rather than formula. As babies, the squirrels are on formula and can be handled, but after they are weaned, it may be dangerous to handle them.
“Some animals and some squirrels will imprint more than others,” said Harrell. “They all have different personalities, but as a rule squirrels will wild up, and will never really make a good pet.”
Squirrels’ diets are full of fresh produce and other vegetarian options. People may expect them to eat nuts but Harrell says that is more of a treat for hers and wild squirrels. They will even eat bones to maintain their calcium levels.
Squirrels can easily become calcium deficient, so Harrell highly suggests against people trying to raise the animals on their own. It takes a lot of work to continue feeding the animals a healthy diet.
Harrell has enjoyed taking care of the squirrels that need her help and finds therapy in it as long as she maintains her balance of caring for herself as well.
“I’ve learned a lot just by watching them,” said Harrell.