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Nuts About ‘Em : Nature: Paula Drake’s knack for nursing injured squirrels has turned into a love affair with the critters. Those she keeps as pets have their own beds, bank accounts and more.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’s just a youngster. But with the recession and all, Winston Drake knows the value of squirreling a little away in the bank.

Winston should. He is a squirrel.

He’s one of seven bushy-tailed red tree squirrels who live in luxury in a hillside home in South Pasadena.

The animals have their names painted on the mailbox out front. They sleep with electric blankets--heating pads--on their tiny beds. They keep their money in their own savings accounts at a local bank.

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And why not? asks their owner, Paula Drake. “They’re little fur people.”

For 10 years Drake has been a squirrel person herself.

She has tended sick and injured squirrels brought to her home by local veterinarians and animal shelter workers. She has nursed dozens of orphaned or abandoned babies until they could be returned to the wild. She has kept those too crippled to survive on their own--exercising them in her living room every day and feeding them fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Drake admits that all that might sound a little nutty--particularly for a person who hunted squirrels as a girl in Missouri and found “they make pretty good stew.”

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“That’s awful to say! I hope you guys aren’t listening!” Drake said with a laugh, glancing quickly around at the seven sets of beady eyes peeking from cages atop antique furniture in the living room.

Her home’s walls are covered with hundreds of squirrel paintings, figurines and other squirrel knickknacks. In front of the house, an official-looking, regulation-sized yellow “Squirrel Crossing” traffic sign warns motorists to slow down. About a dozen wild squirrels live in trees around the house.

Drake’s squirrel rescue work began by accident. A friend asked for help with a baby female squirrel that a little boy had found. Drake remembers reluctantly putting the tiny animal in an empty fish tank and experimenting with ways to feed it.

Within a couple of days, Drake said, “her intelligence and aggressiveness and her will to live got to me. She was so amazing. She was learning more about me than I was learning about her. I was hooked.”

That first squirrel, named Peanut, lived 7 1/2 years--even though it suffered from diabetes and eventually required twice-daily insulin injections. When word of Drake’s work with Peanut spread, others with squirrel problems began knocking on her Kolle Avenue door.

Along came Rambo, suffering internal injuries, a broken back and paralysis from being hit by a car. Sterling arrived, his jaw and pelvis broken by a fall. Surrey came with a concussion, facial cuts and nerve damage after being mauled by a cat. Ten-week-old Winston showed up, near death from starvation, dehydration and pneumonia.

Rambo underwent four operations, steroid therapy and 152 visits to the vet, Drake said. But the tough little creature survived all of that--plus a shocking nibble on a vacuum cleaner cord, which burned off his whiskers--and lived six years.

“He was a big TV fan,” Drake remembers. “He loved to watch football and basketball. But not the commercials. Rambo would turn his back or go get a drink or some nuts when they came on. And he’d come back when the game started again.”

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Drake opened bank accounts for each of her squirrels when veterinarian bills began to mount. The accounts are funded by cash gifts that friends and Drake’s five grown children give when each squirrel has a birthday party.

“You can’t just say these squirrels are like family members to us. They are our family,” said Drake, who works a a seller of antique watches.

Husband Ron Drake, an aviation company executive, keeps nine framed photos of the squirrels on the seven-foot-long credenza in his Rancho Dominguez office.

A squirrel named Midnight, who needs daily doses of phenobarbital to control epileptic seizures, is his favorite. It recognizes the sound of his car at night and waits by the front door to greet him.

“Midnight is just absolutely super. It makes you want to cry how one little animal like her can express so much love,” Ron Drake said. “I’m prejudiced to the point where I’d say squirrels are the best pet I’ve known or ever had.”

Although squirrels are sometimes raised as pets in England, many Americans have misconceptions about them, according to Paula Drake.

Rabies is not a problem with local animals, she said. Neither is bubonic plague, since tree squirrels rarely have fleas, as mountain-area ground squirrels do. She said the animals gnaw, but they can be trained not to damage furniture. And they will not bite or scratch humans unless provoked.

Indoor squirrels do require effort, however. Babies must be fed an expensive mother’s milk substitute every 3 1/2 hours. Older squirrels must be given toys and exercised daily outside their cages. The cages must be cleaned each day. And the squirrels must be supplied with dishes of fresh fruit and nuts.

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“They make good pets. There are none better, in fact,” Drake asserted. “They’re very intelligent. They’re easy to train. They have a longer attention span than I do.”

It is illegal to keep a squirrel as a pet in California, however, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Permits are available only to those who keep them for educational or rehabilitation purposes, a department spokeswoman said.

It is even against the law for Los Angeles residents to feed “indigenous wildlife” such as squirrels, pointed out Dyer Huston, spokesman for the city’s Animal Regulation Department.

Added Ray Magallanes, animal control officer for South Pasadena: “I wouldn’t recommend them as pets. To me, they’re too wired, too unpredictable.”

Magallanes said he has taken half a dozen orphaned or injured squirrels to Drake in the past six months. “She knows what she’s doing. She’s very careful,” he said.

Pasadena-area animal officials said they have sent about 20 squirrels to Drake during the same period. Many were babies knocked from nests by tree-trimmers; newborn squirrels must stay in their nests about nine weeks, generally until mid-April.

“I don’t know what I’d do without her, to be honest,” said Ronni Jacobsen, an animal health technician at the Pasadena Humane Society.

San Marino veterinarian Dean G. Watanabe, who has treated dozens of Drake’s squirrels, has frequently come to work in the middle of the night on squirrel emergencies. The rodents are “quite intelligent and perceptive,” he said. “And she’s one of the most conscientious pet owners I’ve met.”

The $1,100 that her squirrels have in their bank accounts and in savings bonds helps defray the cost of medical attention, Drake explained as she showed Winston his bank book.

Winston flicked his tail in appreciation. Perhaps because his account is at the bank’s branch office.


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