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October 31, 2011

Off Duty: It's Raining Squirrels

When Hurricane Irene caused a squirrel emergency, Patti Hoffman helped give baby squirrels a second chance

Part of an online series profiling staff and friends who volunteer "Off Duty"

  • After Hurricane Irene stormed up the East Coast, wildlife rehab hotlines rang off the hook with calls about orphaned squirrels. Heather Fone

Read more Off Duty stories»

By Julie Hauserman

For Patti Hoffman, the storm named Irene will forever be burned in her memory as the “squirrel hurricane.”

When she’s not working as an administrative assistant at The Humane Society of the United States, Hoffman staffs the hotline for the Wildlife Rescue League of Northern Virginia. And when Hurricane Irene blew through her region, the hotline lit up. In just three days, the hotline fielded 156 calls from people—all of them trying to rescue baby squirrels who were tossed out of downed trees and blown down with dropped branches.

“I’m not talking one squirrel per call, I’m talking about nests of seven, nests of five,” says Hoffman.  “They were cold, they were wet, and they were exhausted.”

What to do if you find an orphaned or injured animal »

Squirrels generally are nesting for the second time of the season during August and September. To keep the baby squirrels from perishing from hypothermia, a network of caring humans—transporters, veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators and volunteers—all came together in a massive series of rescues. Hoffman was hotline coordinator.

“It was continuous for two days, trying to find people who knew how to care for these squirrels,” she said.

Many of the squirrels were so small they hadn't yet opened their eyes, and they needed to be fed four to six times per day. Hoffman, who has taken 100 hours of training in wildlife rehabilitation, isn’t able to become an official wildlife rehabber because the state she lives in—West Virginia—has no licensing program. She can transport wild animals, but can’t legally care for them in her West Virginia home.

“The only way I can help right now is by working the phone and finding people to help wild animals in Virginia,” she said. “I feel like I can help the wildlife rehabilitation community by helping tell the public where to get the best care necessary for whatever animal they are calling about.”

"This was a true squirrel emergency!"

In this case, it was squirrels, squirrels, and more squirrels. Veterinary clinics and wildlife rehabilitation facilities quickly reached their limits in the days after Irene. At one point, Hoffman hopped in her car and drove 125 miles round-trip to meet someone with a load of baby squirrels in need of transport to wildlife rehabilitators in nearby towns. By the time she was done with that, another 50 squirrels had come in, and she immediately got back on the phone to search for more people to care for them.

“This,” Hoffman says, “was a true squirrel emergency!”

Rehabbers and veterinarians throughout Virginia are now nursing the squirrels until they can be released back into the wild. The squirrels who survived Hurricane Irene will be weaned when they are about eight weeks old and will be ready for release at about 12 weeks.

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