Michigan man fills much-needed niche – in squirrel rehab?

Most of the squirrels in western Michigan have a two-year life expectancy, but squirrels in captivity can life as long as 15 years.

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — Rehabbing wildlife is not for everyone, and working with squirrels is probably among the least desirable projects, according to local rehabilitator Brad Boyink.

The Spring Lake resident and Grand Haven businessman paused recently to offer almonds to the full-grown squirrels running around inside a large cage in his office.

Nutmeg and Kai should have been released outside last fall, but Nutmeg, the male, was still recovering from a broken leg and the early cold snap made conditions too harsh to release the young animals, Boyink said. Instead, he will wait for a streak of days with temperatures above 50 before he starts the release process for the fox squirrels.

The siblings came to Boyink at about two weeks of age in September 2018.

“There was a storm that knocked their nest out of the tree and killed the mother,” he said to the Grand Haven Tribune. Nutmeg and Kai were the only siblings to survive.

Boyink said, at that age, you have to feed them every two hours. And you can’t feed them just anything. Cow milk will kill them and puppy formula does not have enough nutrition.

“It takes a special formula,” he said. “It’s like raising a baby. It’s a lengthy process and a huge commitment.”

The time commitment is why there are not a lot of people interested in doing rehabilitating squirrels, he said.

So why does he do it?

“Everything deserves a chance,” Boyink said. “The squirrels that I get are orphaned. They would never have survived on their own.”

Like any other animal, there’s a place in the environmental chain for them, he said.

“More trees get planted by squirrels carrying nuts than any other way,” he explained. “They are also a food source.”

So Boyink says he fills a niche in the rehab world that others don’t want to fill.

Boyink said that he helped rehab a squirrel when he was a boy. About six years ago, he started up again.

“Initially, it was occasional,” he said. But as more people learned about what he was doing, and as he had more requests to help, he decided that he needed to become an authorized rehabilitator through the Michigan DNR.

To do that, he completed his certification through the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. That ensures that the animals get a certain standard of care. Boyink said he follows all of the IWRC guidelines.

He is now included on the list of Michigan DNR authorized wildlife rehabilitators. Boyink emphasized that this is not a complete list of people available to help with wildlife. There are a lot of people with sub-certifications. Any one of these people listed can help you connect with the right person.

“Squirrels are my specialty, but I deal with all animals,” Boyink said. “It’s a whole network of a lot of us working together.”

He recommends that people don’t try to help wildlife on their own.

“Bring it to a rehabber,” Boyink said. “We know what we are doing.”

Boyink also has a larger cage at his home that backs up to woods and dunes.

His “long-term” squirrel is an eastern gray that he named Olukai, after the shoebox in which he received the squirrel.

Olukai is long term because he has a vitamin D deficiency, and wouldn’t survive the winter because he would get brittle bone disease, Boyink explained.

Most of the squirrels in western Michigan have a two-year life expectancy, but squirrels in captivity can life as long as 15 years, he said.

Boyink said that Olukai, now 5 years old, has been instrumental in training the baby squirrels’ climbing and foraging skills, and will probably be released this spring with its cage mate, Squeaker.

Although most of his releases have been successful, Boyink said that Squeaker has resisted going back to the wild.

Boyink starts the release process by moving the squirrels with their nesting box into an outdoor cage. When they’ve had about three days to get used to the sights, smells and sounds, Boyink opens a hatch on the cage so the squirrels can come and go as they like. A few days later, he moves the nesting box to a tree out in the woods on his property.

“They will typically spend another week in the box,” he said. “Eventually, they will venture out with other squirrels and nest.”

Squeaker wasn’t one of them.

“When I opened the cage, he would go sit at the back slider until I opened it,” Boyink said. “Then he would run back to the cage with Olukai.”

Boyink said that the younger squirrel had bonded with the older one.

“He will whine if you put him out and don’t let him back in,” said Boyink, who still plans to try to release him again.

He admits getting attached to the squirrels, but that it’s part of life – putting them back into the wild and likely never seeing them again.

Boyink realizes that, because of his vitamin D deficiency, Olukai might not make it through next winter if the release is successful.

Still, many of the 60 squirrels he has rehabbed and released over the years still run around his property.

“You get to know them by their markings and their personality,” he said.

The rehabber expects to start getting calls on taking in some babies soon. Depending on their age, he will have them 6-10 weeks and then they will be released back into the wild.

He’s had up to 23 squirrels at one time, although some of those were born to squirrels being rehabbed. And yes, some of them don’t make it.

Although Boyink said his success rate is very high, the odds of rehabbing a squirrel hit by a car is less than 10 percent. Boyink will still check the animal, but if it has to be euthanized, he takes it to one of the veterinarians he works with in Holland or Muskegon.

He emphasized that squirrels don’t carry rabies, but that doesn’t mean you should keep them as a pet.

“They are wild animals and unpredictable,” he said.

Boyink recently posted on social media a photo of a duck he released after a short rehabilitation.

“A person found it by a dock in Spring Lake, tangled in fishing line,” he said. “They removed the line.”

Boyink said that he made sure the duck was hydrated and functioning properly before releasing it back into the lake.

Anyone who has a sick or injured wild animal that needs help can contact Boyink through Facebook or through the DNR website.

He does not take donations.

“When I take them in, I take on the full burden of the cost,” he said. “I don’t want people to not call me because they think they are going to have to pay someone to take care of them. I can afford to do it, so I do.”

Boyink said it is important to get the squirrels back into their own habitat.

“There’s a saying, ‘One day in a tree is better than a lifetime in a cage,”’ he said.

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