When Federico Erebia retired from medicine after 25 years in the field, he never anticipated taking on new patients, let alone the furry variety that inhabit trees and store nuts. Yet he found himself one morning earlier this year working with chicken wire and rope, inventing a physical therapy device for a squirrel — a squirrel that, as it turns out, would change his life.
He found the squirrel, or the squirrel found him, on a spring day when both critter and man weren’t feeling particularly well. Erebia had gutted his turn-of-the-last-century Dutch Colonial house in Malden and was refurbishing it solo. It was a beast of a project that had been dragging on for nearly a year
On this particular day, he was returning to the job after running errands when he saw the squirrel hobbling out from under a car. It was a wisp of a thing, dragging one hind leg and struggling to use the other.
Whether disoriented or oblivious, the injured animal was crawling directly into a busy intersection.
Erebia had never been particularly fond of any rodent fast enough to, say, scurry up a pant leg. But the animal lover in Erebia took over and went into action. No animal, not even a rodent, would be flattened on his watch.
“He was going to be killed soon if I didn’t do something about it,” he said.
He called to his husband to bring a plastic bin, hoping to scoop up the squirrel and get it out of harm’s way. As he waited, the squirrel slowly moved toward him and nestled between his feet.
“He just stayed there,” Erebia said. “It was almost as if he had been looking for me.”
Instead of simply depositing it in the backyard, Erebia went into medical mode and opted to become the squirrel’s personal physician. No charge.
In the days that followed, he fed him nuts and bits of pineapple, which the hungry squirrel took in his paws and ate eagerly, grunting with pleasure. Erebia gave him a name, Pepito — Little Pepe — and posted videos on Facebook. The image of happy Pepito hugging a walnut was almost sweet enough to cause an outbreak of cavities among his online friends. Erebia quickly learned that squirrels purr; when he reached down to stroke Pepito’s head, the little animal closed his eyes and murmured with joy.
Erebia had no time for squirrel rehabilitation in his schedule. There was the matter of completing the seemingly endless work on the Dutch Colonial. But the animal offered a much-needed break. Erebia, 55, a self-described workaholic and perfectionist, quickly began to enjoy his time with Pepito. The injured little rodent was an ideal diversion for the detail-obsessed Erebia. He made a place for Pepito among the tools and scraps of wood in his workshop.
Erebia knew nothing about the intricacies of treating squirrels, but he did know human medicine and he used it to chart a treatment for Pepito. This was perhaps the finest care a squirrel without health insurance could receive in the United States.
“Mainly, it’s remembering how tendons work. If you touch a newborn here,” he said, pressing his palm, “it will grasp. I figure it couldn’t be that different on another mammal.”
He tried it on Pepito, and it worked. Grasping meant he could be rehabilitated.
He also knew that if the squirrel was to fully recover, and survive, his legs would need to be strengthened; he would need physical therapy, just as humans do. The industrious Erebia decided he would make an exercise machine that mimicked the rough surface of a tree.
That’s when he got out the chicken wire. He shaped it into a cone and wove different textures of rope through it to simulate bark. Once he was assured that Pepito was strong enough to grasp securely, Erebia lifted the squirrel onto it and turned it slowly to make him walk. It worked beautifully, even if Pepito resisted.
“He did not like physical therapy at all,” Erebia said. “But he did it at least three times a day for 10-15 minutes. I was focusing on all of his limbs, but specifically making sure he wasn’t ignoring his injured leg. Some of us don’t like to exercise, so I can relate.”
From therapy a friendship developed. Pepito ran in circles around Erebia’s hand and arm and playfully nipped at his fingers.
“He was eating and happy. His legs were working,” Erebia said. “I felt like a proud parent.”
Erebia began taking him outside to try on a real tree, but the squirrel had little interest, preferring to return to the luxuries of the workshop.
Gradually, though, he grew more used to his natural surroundings and stayed out longer and longer. In time, Pepito grew fond of a large oak behind the house and made friends with other squirrels., particularly a lady squirrel that Erebia named Colita. One day Pepito went up the oak tree and did not return. Erebia folded a towel and placed it under the cover of a grill on the patio, in case he needed a place to sleep.
It had been Erebia’s plan all along to release Pepito so that he could live as a squirrel should. But now he felt a little bereft. Cue the John Barry theme from the 1966 heart-tugger “Born Free” and break out the tissues.
He returned to working on the house but without the breaks to play with Pepito.
On a recent afternoon at the house while recounting the story to a visitor, Erebia whistled for Pepito and shook a container of some of his favorite treats, including cheddar popcorn. Pepito came down the tree and looked but then darted back up into the branches.
“I miss playing with him,” Erebia said, looking up at the tree. “I have a wonderful husband, I have three dogs, but I have a special relationship with Pepito.”
It’s difficult when any child leaves home, even if that child is a squirrel. Still, it seems the squirrel has not forgotten Erebia. He often appears when Erebia calls. And on occasion, after a rain, Erebia goes to the grill in the backyard to lift the cover, finding Pepito there peering back at him with what seems a glimmer in his black marble eyes.
Erebia seems pleased with Pepito’s balance between wildlife and domesticity and remains devoted to the little friend who helped him realize that there was more to life than rehabbing an old home.
“I think he needed me just as much as I needed him,” Erebia said. “We really did help each other.”
The house is now finished and Erebia is working on rebuilding the carriage house. There is one feature of it that Erebia sounds most excited about: a little room accessible from the outside just for Pepito.Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.