P.E.I. woman gets up close and personal with squirrels

Joanne Scantlebury has names for most of the squirrels she feeds on her property. (Though the practice is widespread, wildlife officials generally advise against feeding backyard animals.) (Submitted by Joanne Scantlebury)

Joanne Scantlebury says she is a recluse, but she does have a lot of friends who come to her house every day — more than a dozen squirrels.

For many years, the fibre artist and her husband have been feeding squirrels and birds that live around their property in Cumberland on Prince Edward Island’s South Shore.

The squirrels not only take peanuts right from her hand, they dive into her pockets too. The birds will also come very close. Last week, she said a chickadee even flew into her pocket for the first time.

“The squirrels will eat out of my pockets quite often, so as long as I have plenty of peanuts in there, a lot of them will take care of themselves,” she said. “The blue jays will now take peanuts out of my hand as I put them up on the branches, so that’s gotten interesting. Nobody seems to be scared of me at all. 

“And the squirrels sort of vie for attention, you know, ‘Mum! Mum! Me first, please!’ It’s just really, really fun.”

‘Just feels wonderful’

Scantlebury said her morning ritual for years has been to go out on her second-storey deck, being careful not to step on the welcoming committee, Noddy and Little Nose (yes, she has named each one). 

Scantlebury is a fibre artist and works her squirrel friends into her toques and even custom fabric she designed. (Joanne Scantlebury)

Her pockets are brimming with peanuts in the shell for the squirrels, and she feeds and waters the birds too —chickadees, blue jays, crows, mourning doves, and last winter, a black and white duck. Feeding happens mornings and evenings.

Scantlebury said the squirrels are gentle, and there have been no injuries on either side during their interactions. 

I really love these little guys. We watch them all day.— Joanne Scantlebury

“It’s been a daily thing for a long time, and we sort of commune,” she said. “It just feels wonderful.”

When she hangs her laundry outside to dry or walks to the beach, she said she and her husband always carry peanuts for the squirrels, who will come running when they see them. 

“They’ve got me trained!” she said with a laugh. 

The last few months, Scantlebury began videotaping her squirrel and bird interactions to share with family members. 

“I put the videos on first because my grandchildren, my family like to see them.… Since most of them are far away, I pop them on Instagram and Facebook,” she said. “The next thing I knew, I had people that were really enjoying them,” from all over. 

Viewers are amused by the fast movements and funny antics of the animals. 

“A lot of times I will have four or five of them racing over me, chasing each other. They’re on my head, they’re on my shoulder,” Scantlebury said. “I don’t want to step on one, so there are awkward moments with the camera.”

‘I needed them’

Scantlebury has always loved wildlife, she said, but she didn’t get serious about feeding the squirrels until about a decade ago when her mother got very sick.

“I just found that I needed the squirrels probably more than they needed me,” she said. “I had one squirrel in particular that would sit with me — it would sit with me on my hammock, or on the chair wherever I was, and didn’t necessarily want a peanut. It would come when it was called — a lot of them will, you know, come by name, and Maggie did that. That’s when I started to really get into it.

Don’t let them trick you into getting snuggles or handouts!— Andrea Wishart

“I’d always been feeding them but I really felt more like I was communing with them at that point.”

The relationship with the squirrels gave her comfort, purpose and company — not to mention entertainment. 

“I’m a bit of a recluse, and I really love these little guys. We watch them all day,” she said. “I’ve got windows all along the front of the house, and every time we go out the door we’re met by one or two. They’re very entertaining, so the cost of the food is not an issue because this is our entertainment … these little characters are really wonderful.”

Feeding wildlife not recommended

Andrea Wishart is a PhD researcher at the University of Saskatchewan specializing in red squirrels, and said she understands the temptation to get close to them. 

“Squirrels, especially North American red squirrels, are incredibly fun to watch, and they are very bold and willing to interact with people,” Wishart told CBC News via email. “Don’t let them trick you into getting snuggles or handouts! Squirrels are very intelligent and very resourceful, so they will do just fine on their own.”

She recommends people do not feed wildlife for several reasons. It can condition animals to become reliant on people, which can lead to human-wildlife conflict. Many foods people feed to wildlife are not nutritionally appropriate — for example, feeding ducks bread fills them up yet offers almost no usable nutrients, she said. And conditioning wild animals to get used to humans can put them in harm’s way.

“Wild animals can carry all kinds of diseases that can transfer to humans (called “zoonoses”, COVID is actually one, and rabies is another),” Wishart said. “Rabies in squirrels is very rare, but any mammal can carry it and you don’t want to receive a bite from an infected animal.”

Artist not worried

But Scantlebury says she isn’t afraid of bacteria or disease they may carry. 

And although squirrels have a reputation for destroying property, they haven’t wrecked anything at her place and haven’t gained access to the house. 

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and never seen nothing negative personally — and I’ve been in contact with hundreds and hundreds of squirrels, and birds.

“I hope everybody can love a squirrel today.”

More from CBC P.E.I.

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