HOUSTON (AP) — It's noon, and the small army of volunteers and staff has been mobilized.
One by one, the caregivers lift the tiny baby squirrels out of their cages, insert small syringes filled with squirrel formula into their little mouths and begin to slowly pump the white liquid.
It's a typical day in an anything-but-typical year at the Wildlife Center of Texas, which shares a building, and much more, with the Houston SPCA out on Old Katy Road.
Since the beginning of September, the center has taken in some 400 abandoned baby squirrels, the most in three decades, if you leave out the Hurricane Ike year. Ike struck Texas on Sept. 13, 2008.
Right now the center is home to 250 baby squirrels, carefully organized by age and health, and 50 more are outside waiting to be put back in the wild. "For now, we're Mom," says Debbie Mitchell, an operations manager.
The squirrels range from hairless little wigglers the size of a thumb to solid-food-eating bruisers who look ready to take on a bird feeder. Some are the high-energy gray squirrels (white tummies), some the larger and more laid-back fox squirrels (reddish tummies) and a few are flying squirrels, with extra flaps of skin that allow them to glide, not fly.
"This batch is doing quite well — no diseases. We expect to release 90 percent," says Sharon Schmalz, the executive director of the center.
But the big question — why so many? — is somewhat hard to answer.
For one thing, Schmalz says, more mother squirrels seem to be abandoning their babies, a sign of stress. For another, the drought has caused a significant loss of trees suitable to hold squirrel nests.
On top of all this is the fact that humans have already royally screwed up the squirrel habitat, drought or no drought. Fewer big trees, more cars, less room to roam means any added stress is layered onto an already stressed situation. So a mother squirrel who loses her big tree may not be able to find another, and she abandons her babies.
And that answers the other question — why save squirrels? — this way: because we kind of owe them.
For the record, if you find baby squirrels, take them to the center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. If it's after hours, keep them in a box or dog kennel. Do not feed them, Schmalz says, because if a baby gets formula in its lungs, it's devilish to cure the pneumonia. Don't even think about making one a pet; it's illegal.
Here, the workers feed but don't cuddle or pet the animals. The beasts need to remain wary.
Touring the Wildlife Center is enough to make you wonder whether, outside of the gentle souls in this building, the wrong species is in charge of things.
Over here is a great horned owl that flew into a soccer net in League City and hung upside down for 12 hours. When he arrived, he couldn't see. Here's a broad-winged hawk that may have been hit by a car and a peregrine falcon shot out by the airport. And here are some turtles, their broken shells ingeniously held together with the kind of hook and eye you'd find at the top of a dress zipper.
Some animals that can't return to the wild become "ambassadors" for the center's outreach program, which educates some 12,000 people, mostly kids, each year. "We teach that respecting wildlife, respecting the environment and respecting each other are all tied together," Schmalz says.
A clear favorite of the humans is Blanca, a pudgy albino opossum who couldn't make it in the wild. (You can tell Schmalz is a pro because she pronounces the "o'' in "opossum.") Today Blanca's getting a bath, because she has a presentation in a couple of days. Diana Sullivan, one of the 350 volunteers, found her in June 2010, when Blanca couldn't clamber up a curb.
Out in the lobby, Jordan Petrey, Patty Allison and Jordan's 4-year-old son, Seth, are handing over a Cooper's hawk they found in Pearland after it crashed into a window. Schmalz hopes this act of kindness will be impressed on little Seth's heart — that he'll always know, now, the right thing to do.
Schmalz should know. She is, in real life, an engineer with a degree in computer science and math. But then there was the day, nearly 30 years ago, that she found a baby bird in her yard, and she's been saving little lives ever since.
It's almost 2:30 p.m. now, and the feeding is just about done. That means it's cleanup time, because the next feeding, the last of three each day, starts at 3:30. Three or four more baby squirrels have come in this afternoon and started on Pedialyte to rehydrate.
A volunteer remarks on how busy it seems. "Oh, you haven't been here in baby bird season," Mitchell says, laughing.
None of this influx was in the center's budget, of course, so the center counts on donations of food, gift cards and nuts — cash is also nice — from volunteers and the public. (It is also supported by foundations and corporations.)
The center doesn't turn down any native wild animal, which means it took in 9,000 animals last year. That counts as busy. And it counts as kind.
"That many people stopped and they cared," Schmalz says. "People do care."