Nancy Murrah walked into her yard in Brandon the morning after Hurricane Irma passed over Tampa Bay and saw fallen tree limbs tangled and piled on top of each other. As a wild animal rescuer, she had one thought:
There's going to be thousands and thousands of baby squirrels on the ground everywhere.
She was right.
What she didn't expect was the volume of abandoned infant squirrels people would bring to rescuers. In the 24 hours after Irma's departure, Murrah's wildlife group — Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue — was inundated with 212 baby squirrels. The Category 1 winds that blew through Tampa Bay had sent the babies' nests flying and their mothers fleeing. This is the time of year squirrels give birth, leaving them one of the most vulnerable groups of wild animals facing the storm's strong winds and heavy rains in Florida.
"We weren't anticipating the number of squirrels we got," Murrah said. "It took me four-and-a-half hours to get through feeding them and by the time you get through, you have to start again."
Now multiple rescue groups across the bay area have split the burden and are caring for more than 300 infant squirrels that would have died otherwise. Squirrels so little they barely have fur and can't eat solid food. Three of them huddled together could easily fit in the palm of your hand.
In Palm Habor, the Suncoast Animal League is caring for more than 70 baby squirrels and they just keep coming. Rick Chaboudy and his crew were accepting the little animals even when his facility had no power.
That posed a problem: Baby squirrels need to be kept warm, and many of the ones coming through their doors were soaked with rain and shivering. Usually Chaboudy and his team rely on heating pads to mimic a mother's warmth. The day after Irma, they put towels outside on top of a truck's hood to heat them under the sun.
Murrah said mother squirrels will typically keep two nests and take their babies between them. So if you find a baby squirrel on the ground it's best to sit and watch for awhile. If you fear the squirrel could get injured by any lurking predators, Murrah says to place the baby in a box with a hole on the side so the mother can go in and retrieve it when she returns.
If after hours of keeping an eye on the squirrel the mother still doesn't return, that's when it's time to ensure the baby squirrel is warm — Murrah has seen women tuck the hamster-sized babes in their bras before to keep their temperatures up.
"If the baby comes in cold to the touch, there's a less of a chance of survival," she said.
So far about two dozen of the squirrels brought in to Murrah have died, but she was optimistic the bulk of their rescues would survive and be returned to the wild.
While people can be trained to care for the squirrels on their own, it's an undertaking. The squirrels need to eat about every two hours, Murrah said, and shouldn't be given any "people food" other than Pedialyte.
"Florida's fish and wildlife species have experienced natural weather events for thousands of years and are generally well adapted for survival," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Robert Klepper.
But the National Wildlife Federation says that while hurricanes are part of the natural environment, increasingly intense storms can make it more difficult for regions and wildlife to bounce back.
Chaboudy and Murrah see it as their duty to help whatever animals they can and return.
Among his litter of squirrels, Chaboudy also has a turtle, an opossum and an osprey. The bird, he said, came in with a bloodied beak and looked as if the wind had slammed it in to something.
But after getting some fluids in its system it started to eat and perch again.
As for the squirrels, Chaboudy suspects it will be a few months before any of them are grown enough to be released.
"A lot of these little guys don't even have their eyes open yet," he said.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.