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Squirrel Skirmish : Defying State, Woman Hides Her Ailing, Bushy-Tailed Patients

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A South Pasadena woman who has spent 12 years rescuing sick and injured squirrels is really going out on a limb this time for the bushy-tailed creatures.

Paula Drake is defying state Fish and Game officials intent on hauling her into court for misappropriating state property: the squirrels themselves.

Game wardens ordered her to release 18 squirrels she is treating at her home by today, allegedly warning that if she does not, they would seize them and could kill them.

No way, responded Drake, whose do-it-yourself squirrel rescue work has gained worldwide attention--not to mention the admiration of local humane workers and veterinarians who have referred hundreds of injured animals to her.

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She hired a lawyer and helped launch a petition campaign asking clemency from Gov. Pete Wilson. In the meantime, she filed for a wildlife rehabilitation permit that the Department of Fish and Game says she must have to do her work.

Finally, she has quietly squirreled her tiny friends away--out of the reach of game wardens who had vowed to return to her house today.

“They’re at safehouses,” Drake says of the squirrels, some of them blind or partially paralyzed and unable at this point to survive on their own.

Late Thursday, Fish and Game administrators in Sacramento backed off. Officials pledged to postpone any raid of Drake’s house until they decide whether to grant her a rehabilitation license.

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Fish and Game officials say they were merely upholding the law last week when they went to Drake’s home on Kolle Avenue to investigate a complaint that wild animals were being illegally kept there.

Squirrels are considered wildlife. As such, they are the property of the state and subject to rules that prohibit their domestication.

But Drake says she had assumed her dozen years of work was sanctioned by authorities. So she said she invited a game warden inside her house, which is decorated with hundreds of squirrel paintings and knickknacks.

And then she showed him each of her 18 red tree squirrel patients.

Drake was promptly cited for having prohibited animals on her premises and for operating a wild animal rehabilitation program without a permit. She was ordered to remove the squirrels by today and to answer misdemeanor criminal charges Dec. 6 in Pasadena Municipal Court.

Her lawyer, John Meyers of Century City, said he plans to fight the charges--which are unaffected by Thursday’s Fish and Game action.

Drake’s squirrel rescue work--profiled in 1992 by The Times and afterward by newspapers and magazines around the world--has never been a secret, Meyers said.

According to Drake, the decision to put her squirrels in “safehouses” was made after the game warden threatened to kill them.

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“He told me he could put me in handcuffs and take me to jail. He said he could destroy the animals on the spot,” Drake said.

The 18 squirrels are too fragile to be released into the wild, she said. Some are disabled from being hit by cars, others can barely wobble around because of a variety of ailments that they are receiving treatment for.

“I tried to tell the warden that this one is a full-blown epileptic and that one has a vestibular problem. He said, ‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying.’ ”

Fish and Game Warden Frank Milazzo could not be reached for comment. But a department spokesman said he doubts that Milazzo would kill the animals.

“I think he was going to have a rehab center take them,” said Patrick Moore of the agency’s Long Beach office.

Jeff Weir, assistant deputy director of the agency, said Thursday evening that officials will ask Drake to relocate the squirrels to a Humane Society shelter until they can verify her animal-handling qualifications.

“We’re not going to be breaking down any doors,” Weir said. “We’re planning to let the steam simmer off the pot. We don’t want everything escalated to the point of no return.”

Drake remained wary, however. “I’m very skeptical,” she said, vowing that the squirrels would remain hidden for now.

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Drake said she has been consulted on up to 4,000 injured squirrels by veterinarians, shelter workers and others who have called her over the last dozen years.

She said she has directly treated about 500 squirrels since a friend brought her an orphaned baby that a boy had found. Drake has kept some severely injured squirrels for years. One named Rambo--suffering internal injuries, a broken back and paralysis after being hit by a car--underwent four operations, steroid therapy and 152 visits to the veterinarian.

Rambo lived six years, becoming a big football and basketball fan, she said. “He watched games on TV. He’d turn his back or go get a drink or some nuts when the commercials came on. He’d come back when the game started again.”

Drake has painted some of her long-term patients’ names on the mailbox out front, the one near the regulation-size traffic sign that reads: “Squirrel Crossing.”

Friends and Drake’s five grown children have contributed to tiny bank accounts that the squirrels have in their own names. That money, along with a newly established “Squirrel Defense Fund,” will be used to defray legal costs for the animals.

“They’re little fur people,” Drake said.


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