A squirrel brings out the animal-lover in my boy

Séamas O’Reilly
Photograph: Jane Hallin/Alamy

We first saw her a few weeks ago, slowly encroaching on our territory when my son sat facing the window. We hadn’t expected this squirrel to take any notice of him, much less to tap her finger on the glass to get his attention. It was an odd gesture, but then squirrels are a bit like that, with their strangely human little hands, held in front of their crouched knees like old ladies gripping handbags. Was Mrs Squirrel prepared for his delighted response, and the beginning of a friendship that is testing his mother’s patience?

We’re unlikely to get a pet ourselves, because my wife dislikes all animals

This wouldn’t have happened a few weeks ago. Despite being constantly inundated with pictures of animals, and given an education that appears to be 80% centred on the noises they make, my son has only recently started to acknowledge the real thing. A month ago, he wouldn’t have noticed a dog or cat if it was staring him in the face, which often happened with our friends’ dog Harlow, a spaniel who was perennially chased by their toddler, and steadfastly ignored by ours. Back then, Harlow was a moving rug that occupied their home, and bore no connection to the dogs in his picturebooks, whereas now she is his personal plaything any time we visit.

We’re unlikely to get a pet ourselves, because my wife dislikes all animals. People find this curious, because she’s been an ethical vegetarian since her teens, expressly because she can’t abide the thought of animal cruelty. It’s just that she can’t abide the thought of animals either. My wife abhors rodents most of all. Squirrels, to her, are little more than mice wearing period costume; rats who’ve somehow secured the services of a fancy west London PR firm. But she also doesn’t want to pass these prejudices down, so this week has been a real test of our family’s mettle.

Mrs Squirrel might just like my son, or she might want to crack him open like a juicy gourd and feast on the contents inside; her motives are as yet opaque. Her movements, however, are not. She joins us for breakfast by the window every morning and greets us at the door each afternoon. She doesn’t just greet us on the steps, but follows us down each one and jogs alongside us as we start our progress to the park. It is only when we branch off at the junction that she retreats, with a discreet nod, as if to say she’s heading back to mind the house. And all of these interactions are to my son’s utmost delight, so for the time being we’re supporting their camaraderie.

Perhaps we have to think about the role we play in passing down our own neuroses to a boy who has no fear of those dead doll’s eyes or her small, black, clawed little hands. Maybe they’re right and we’re wrong. It certainly seems to be an energising friendship. We needn’t nurture him away from nature just yet, so long as they both stay bright and bushy tailed.

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