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The beginning of insanity

There was a time I used to write letters on paper using a pen. Sometimes, I had to use color pencils when doing homework from art classes. If for some reason I had to stop what I was doing, I would notice that either my pen or pencil had disappeared. Wait, there it was! Zebe had it in his teeth. To get them back, I had to go through an intense chase and had to roll on the carpet under the sofa or bed. Eventually, Zebe would drop the instrument. I would then be panting while Zebe would be high up somewhere out of reach, laughing.

When we returned home after being out for a few hours, we noticed Zebe wasn’t exactly thrilled to see us. Actually, he resented us for leaving him alone. We started to take turns so there would always be one of us with him. Or, if possible, we would take Zebe with us when we needed to be out for a few hours. That proved to be a little stressful as he would escape from his cage; he liked to ride in the car looking out the window and we knew it was not safe. We did not want anyone to see him; we did not want to lose him.

I don’t remember how, we ended up with a small aquarium. What started off as three fish, ended as one blue female Gourami. Once, we left the top open after cleaning it. Zebe jumped on the edge of the tank and started to touch the water. He lost his balance and fell into it. He came out within half a second; he was a little scared and soaked but that did not discourage him from to trying to “talk” to the fish. When playing with us, Zebe would make both of us tired long before he needed a break. We wondered if Zebe needed a permanent companion, a squirrel friend.

The next time we met with the lady who gave Zebe to us, we expressed our desire to have another squirrel. After she stopped laughing, she said: “I am sure you know that if you have ONE pet squirrel, you have too many.” We knew but we were ready to do anything to keep Zebe happy so we asked her, in case she found another one that needed a home…. and that was the beginning of many years of utter insanity.


Brain power

It was almost 3 PM and I had not yet eaten; I was starving. I hit the kitchen and prepared an aromatic spaghetti Bolognese. I sat on of the sofa holding the plate. Within three seconds, Zebe jumped on the sofa’s arm and asked me: “what you’re having?” I raised the plate and moved it towards him. From a short distance, Zebe decoded my food. He jumped off the sofa onto a chair. With an expression of profound disgust, he had another question: “how can you possibly eat that?” I tried to ignore him and thought it was all in my head but his eyes kept challenging me. To his contentment, I ended up having a banana and sharing an apple with him for lunch.

Since Zebe moved in with us, we made sure to always have fresh, filtered water available. We kept at least three different varieties of fruits and nuts handy that Zebe liked. I was going to bed earlier and waking up earlier too. I was more active and life felt more structured. It was nothing short than amazing that a furry being with a bushy tail; one that weighed about a pound and a half, had such a strong, positive influence. I had been eating red meat on and off since I was a child  – I never really felt good about eating it – but that day, I decided I was off of it for good.

That incident reminded me of a joke; it is meant to insult a certain nationality but I will leave that aside. Nationality “X” man was visiting a Seaquarium when he saw a man standing in front of a tank making weird movements with his head. As he approached that tank, nationality “X” man noticed it was a Japanese man. A fish inside the tank kept replicating the man’s moves. Nationality “X” man was intrigued and asked how the man did that. The Japanese man explained: “It is really easy. We are more intelligent than the fish. With my brain waves, I am controlling the fish’s brain and the fish does what I tell it to do. You can do it too,” he added as he walked away.

Thirty minutes later, the Japanese man was passing by that same spot. He saw that nationality “X” man was still in front of the tank but he looked immobile. As he got closer, he noticed the fish that played with him before was staring at nationality “X” man, who was then replicating that fish faces.

It is not what you think

It was Saturday early evening. The owner of the female squirrel had brought my new friend to visit Zebe. They were both in the living room in their cages enjoying each other’s company. The three of us were talking and not expecting anyone. Then, we heard a somewhat hard knock on the door. We looked through the peephole and we saw two young men standing there. They were nicely dressed but they did not look familiar.

When we adopted Zebe, we thought we were doing something nice. We soon discovered that there were laws. The owner of the female squirrel tried to release her pet in her backyard but her pet kept coming back. We accidentally left the entrance door open quite a few times. There was a palm tree in front of our balcony. Other than smelling the air a little, Zebe couldn’t care less about that tree.

When talking about the laws, we felt it would be inhumane to force the squirrels to live where they did not want to live. Both had been raised by humans and apparently, they felt comfortable and happy where they were. Being thrown into the “doing what is morally right versus what is legally right” conundrum felt like a cruel joke. We knew we couldn’t talk about or show our new family members to anyone.

Back to the knock on our door, we quickly hid both cages. We opened the door and one of the young man asked: “Can I see the squirrel?” We froze! We might have had a puzzled look on our faces as the young man explained he was in the other building when he saw a squirrel in our bedroom window….  Zebe! One of us picked up the stuffed squirrel we had given Zebe as a toy and handed it to the guy. It was his turn to look puzzled. There were two other guys waiting for them downstairs and they started to make jokes. The one who had seen the squirrel said: “…it looked so real…” They soon left and we felt bad but in order to protect the squirrels we had to play the “it is not what you think” game.

Do squirrels curse?

I found an interview at the Washington Post where a scientist who has been studying the behavior of animals, specifically squirrels – was asked if squirrels cursed. The scientist replied he did not like to attach anthropomorphic descriptions to the behaviors of lower animals so he would suspect the squirrel was exhibiting alarm rather than anger. Well, I wished that scientist had met Zebe and a few others. I do believe squirrels curse. A lot of people say they felt like they got an earful when they upset a squirrel. And squirrels do get angry. Their blood pressure rises and the inner corner of their eyes turn red.

One morning we devised a plan. We were expecting a delivery of a sound system and a new carpet steamer. I was to play with Zebe until he got so tired that he would spend the afternoon napping. We would then take care of our new things. All seemed to be going as planned so in the afternoon, I locked Zebe in his cage and took it to the bedroom. As soon as we started to open the boxes, we heard a banging noise. As we ignored it, Zebe became vocal in a very loud tone. He kept saying something we interpreted as: “Open up this ****** ! Open up this ***** door!”  We finally brought the cage to the living room so Zebe could look at what we were doing. That did not suffice. He kept banging the door and cursing. He was visibly enraged.

We were pretty sure Zebe attributed some not so nice adjectives to us too as we were slow to respond to his request. When he came out of his cage, I thought he was going to do something to us but he was more curious about the new items. For the rest of the afternoon, he played with Styrofoam pellets; he kept jumping on bubble wrap and getting in and out of boxes. Later, he passed out from exhaustion in one of those boxes. When I found him, I thought the worst and I quickly picked him up. Within a few seconds, he woke up. He jumped on the carpet and went home. There, he drank some water, ate a little bit and went to bed. The next morning, we asked Zebe: who raised you – you filthy mouth!

Winning over Zebe

I knew Zebe liked me and the staring contest kept on going. I learned that when squirrels scratch behind their ears with their hind feet, it means they are thinking. I learned that their tears look like milk. Zebe then always responded to his name and kept interacting with us but he would not allow us to hold him for longer than a few seconds. I asked him: I want to hold you, what shall I do?

Slowly, he showed me the way. I would get up in the morning and change into old clothes. As soon as I opened the bedroom door – from the top of a shelf – Zebe would fly on my face, move down my shoulder just to climb back to the top of my head. At the beginning of his game, I had my face all scratched. A few people asked me if I had picked up a fight with a cat. I learned to keep the tips of his sharp nails clipped, a job that required two people.

Next, I would return to the bed and gently slide Zebe onto the pillows. He would slither on the bed’s cover all the way to the end of the bed where I was waiting and he would start wrestling with my hand. We pretended to rough and tumble until I made him fall on his back; I would roll him side to side while he appeared to be laughing. Then, I would gently massage his back.

Eventually, I was able to hold Zebe for a few minutes – feet up in the air so I could caress under his neck and tickle his golden yellow belly – but he either pretended unawareness or he was really groggy. When he was fully awake, it was almost impossible to catch him, let alone hold him. Still, he seemed perfectly content living with us.

Infinite wisdom

Zebe had been part of the family for a few months so it was inevitable: he witnessed a huge argument. I broke into tears. I sat at my desk, pushed the keyboard aside and leaned my forehead on my hands, which were on top of the desk; I was sobbing. Worse, I was feeling like there was no one I could turn to.

Suddenly, there was a little weight on my back near my right shoulder. Next, I felt some fast but gentle taps on my neck. I noticed Zebe was trying to avoid getting his nails caught in my long hair while trying to console me. Was that really happening? I was so intrigued that I stopped crying. Zebe jumped off my back onto the desk. With tears still in my eyes, I looked at the blurry, tiny creature. I realized that not only was I no longer alone but also Zebe cared about me!

The next day, when I looked at Zebe, he seemed to occupy the same amount of space as I did. My ego couldn’t resist and I threw an “even the squirrel sided with me.” Zebe heard and probably understood everything. From that day on, he never took sides. He would never get involved and he never played favorites. He would calmly – albeit sometimes with visible sadness – wait for the negative clouds to dissipate and he made clear that he loved both of us. Frolicking and being happy were all that mattered to him.

I did not understand it then but looking back, Zebe probably concluded that if we chased each other up and down a tree like squirrels do, we would blow off some steam so the arguments would not be so heavy. Zebe had not been in that time, space, reality for a full year yet he was infinitely wiser than two adult human beings.

What is in a name?

I could call the juvenile by his given name until I was blue in the face; he would not pay any attention. He responded to sounds so I knew he could hear. I read somewhere that squirrels learned and responded to their names. One afternoon, I said: “Maybe you don’t like your name.” I picked up a dictionary and added: “Let’s choose a new name for you.”

I sat on the carpet and the juvenile jumped on the desk by the computer. I asked: “Shall I start by “A” (no reaction) or “Z (zee)?” The juvenile sat on his hind legs. One of the hands remained on the desk. He rolled the other one towards his chest and lifted his head, tail and ears while looking at me. I said: “I guess that is a Z.” I started saying a few options out loud; I paused after each one waiting for hints.

At a certain point, the juvenile walked on the computer’s keyboard. The software came on the screen and there were a few letters – I don’t really recall their order other than that the first one was “Z.” Then, there were p, g, h and b. Looking at those letters, I tried to form words but they were unpronounceable. Yet, I kept getting reactions with the sound of “zee.”

Suddenly, I said: “It would have been so much easier if you had added a vowel here. I would call you… I said a few names and then said “Zebe.” The juvenile stood up; lift his ears and looked at me. I asked: “Are you telling me your name is Zebe?” He moved, looked at me with a very happy expression, as if to confirm my question. From that moment on, Zebe always answered when he heard his name; he loved it. I wondered how often squirrels got to tell people their names.