Life lessons can be learned from The Squirrel Whisperer


     Ask anyone at Woodward Academy about Skipper and they will smile and share their favorite story. She is quite popular, even adored by practically everyone. The janitor sneaks her mango pits, one of her favorite treats. She is a beloved part of the Woodward family, even though she has never worn a uniform or paid one dollar toward tuition.
            But it would be rather hard for a squirrel to write a check, now wouldn’t it?
            Yep. Skipper is a squirrel. She’s not your typical pet, and that makes her even more special. Though cherished by the entire school, Skipper actually resides with Janie Swanson Tutterow, a popular art instructor at Woodward for 34 years.
Janie and I go way back! She became my best friend on my first day of first grade at Madras Elementary School. We were a surprising match. Janie was the tallest girl in the class and I, well, wasn’t. She was the youngest child of a close-knit family. I was the oldest sibling in a remarkably dysfunctional family. She was a dyed-in-the-wool, fully-dipped Baptist. I was happy to be a merely-sprinkled United Methodist. Our friendship never wavered as we walked the halls and occupied the classrooms of our school. At a terrifying time in history, we trembled beneath our desks during the Cuban Missile Crisis – our arithmetic workbooks covering our heads to shield us from the pulse of a possible nuclear blast. History again touched our school as one frightening afternoon we heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.
            Our friendship has survived childhood, puberty, boyfriends, marriages, and all life has thrown our way. After a 50-year friendship, I assumed I knew everything about my BFF, Janie. But only recently I learned about her affinity for squirrels. Skipper, is actually the ninth squirrel Janie has nursed from birth to full squirrel-hood. Janie loves all animals (minus a few scorpions and crocodiles), so it seems natural that she could easily mother a cuddly, furry, squirrel.
            Skipper was found in a tarpaulin covering a shed after a storm. Not much larger than a walnut, she was obviously newborn. Problem: how do you find a squirrel’s mother? The family wondered what to do but their daughter, a former Woodward student, already knew.
            “Let me call Ms. Tutterow. She takes in abandoned animals and nurses them back to health. She has done this with eight other squirrels.”
            “Eight other squirrels?”
            “I’m not kidding, Mom. She’s incredible and seems to know just what to do. Let me call her.”
            The next day Skipper was delivered to Ms. Tutterow’s classroom for an evaluation. Her art students watched because when Ms. Tutterow adopts a squirrel, so do her students. In fact, choosing a name is a class tradition. Potential names are submitted and a final one is selected by a majority vote.
Skipper was probably less than two weeks old, hairless and her eyes still closed. Janie carefully cuddled and talked sweetly to the tiny creature. She took the squirrel, knowing full well it would require constant care and feeding every two hours. After eight other squirrels, Janie had a system. She fed the squirrel cat formula (found at pet stores) from a syringe with a nipple. As Skipper grew, other foods were introduced into her diet such as edible flowers, white corn, spinach, broccoli and nuts – she loves cashews but will not touch a mere peanut. If you really want to make points with Skipper, her favorite treat is a crinkle-cut French fry from Zaxby’s. In a pinch she will eat waffle fries from Chick-fil-A, but a Zaxby’s fry wins top honors. M & M’s are welcome. Once you crack the outer shell, she dives right for the chocolate – proving, of course, that Skipper is a woman!
Because Skipper needed constant care at first and because she suddenly inherited hundreds of Woodward brothers and sisters, Skipper attended school regularly. In addition to art, Janie uses the lost and abandoned to teach her students greater lessons – love, compassion, and the need to care for all of God’s creation.
At Janie’s home, the squirrel has a “cadillac” cage, approximately 5 feet tall by 3 feet wide, with multiple levels and pockets for hiding and playing. Her traveling cage is much smaller so Skipper obviously prefers her home digs. She tolerates the smaller cage so that she can visit her Woodward family. She gets restless at times so it is not unusual for Janie to teach class with a grown, bushy squirrel atop her shoulder. Is it any wonder that her room is a must see when prospective students tour the school? Parents are astonished and children often ask to be placed in Ms. Tutterow’s and Skipper’s classroom.
So . . . why squirrels?
“Because they are beautiful, considerate, and loving. Skipper loves to be scratched under the chin and snuggle warmly in my lap.” Janie smiles, “I don’t look for squirrels. People bring them to me. I do what I can to save them because I love animals.”
Janie’s first eight squirrels were returned to the wild via the “gradual release program” at Cochran Mill Nature Center in Palmetto. Skipper’s situation is different. Somehow her teeth became hung in her cage and broke off. She cannot exist in the wild without them to forage, crush food, and survive. No worries, though. Skipper will turn five this winter and lives the good life. She is loved, fed, has cherished siblings, and like Janie, she teaches . . . in more ways than one!