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Pecos - terrorgroundasquirrelius
It is a common myth that small animals don't have much intelligence or personality and that they therefore make for fun but uninteresting pets. I hope that if you are one such person that believes this way that you will think differently after reading about a Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel that I had as a pet.
The story began on one spring day 1976 in Tucson Arizona. I was a freshman at the University of Arizona. I had made friends with a dorm resident named John who was my Frisbee partner. He also enjoyed golf and invited me to join him and another dorm resident for a round of golf. I had no interest in learning how to play but thought it would be fun to tag along with him. And so it was that at the age of 19 I found myself at Randolph Golf Course North much more interested in the small burrowing animals that I had run across than my two friends and their golf game.
It would have been interesting enough to view these small prairie dog like rodents as they scurried about their business, but the small playful babies that outnumbered their parents were impossible to ignore. They seemed to be everywhere, sometimes as many as seven or eight at a time frolicking and playing as only babies can. As a non-player I felt that I should stay off the course proper and I was more than willing to follow my friends along the edge of each hole which coincidentally was where the small burrowing mammals had set up shop.
It wasn't long before I noticed that the parents were far more wary of me than their young offspring were. They would give a short shrill whistle as I approached and some of the young'uns would scurry back to their hole. Others wouldn't. The warning call from the parents was piercing and unlike most whistle-like sounds was high pitched, unwavering and lasted about a second long.
About hole number three I had decided that I was going to catch one of these little critters. Golf and my friends were totally forgotten and I began to develop a strategy for my placement between one or more of the babies and their safe haven - a hole in the ground easily spotted by the small mound of dirt around it. I soon learned that this was going to be more challenging than I thought. These clever rodents had more than one entrance into their underground hideaways.
I had numerous chances as I had successfully placed myself between a baby and its hole, but my technique for the actual snaring of this small furry creature was poor. At least twice they ran right between my legs. And the number of holes left was diminishing. At hole 16 and the afternoon waning I decided to try a new strategy. I would find a ground squirrel hole with a number of babies and wait to see if I could catch one coming out of the hole. I don't remember what my friends thought of my antics. I must have looked rather foolish from their perspective. The ground squirrels had ruled the day so far but I was determined to wait one of the babies out.
It took a while but one nose appeared at the hole and ventured out. I snatched it before it could scurry back into the hole. All day I had been slow and clumsy, but I surprised even myself how quickly I had corralled the youngster. Success! It was cute as a button and not much bigger than my thumb.
I was a little bit disturbed to find some small reddish bugs on the baby that I could only guess were fleas, though to this day I do not know what the bugs were. They soon disappeared like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Whatever they were, they were gone. I suppose I should mention that small rodents are sometimes known to have diseases. Small rodents often get lumped into one category or another of disease carriers. Prairie Dogs are known to carry bubonic plague but fears of getting the disease from them are often overstated and deer mice are known to carry the Hantavirus. Hantavirus is relatively rare in ground squirrels, but if you want to be 100% safe it is best to avoid handling wild squirrels and rodents of any kind especially considering the fact that mortality rates in humans getting Hantavirus has historically been around 50%. In retrospect perhaps my wild pet wasn't without some risk, but none of this was running through my mind at the time and it was almost 20 years before the 1993 New Mexico and Arizona Hantavirus outbreak.
I don't remember too much of the early days with my new pet. I knew enough about sexing rodents to determine that 'it' was a 'he'. I set up a small cage for him on my desk. He needed a name. He was a feisty rodent. The name 'Wild Pecos Bill' came to mind. It had a nice Southwest ring to it so 'he' became 'Pecos'. As I was to later discover, the rest of the name was more than fitting to his personality.
The first indication of the trouble ahead occurred one evening when Pecos learned how to get out of his cage. He made a beeline for some honey graham crackers that I had on my desk. It was hilarious to watch. He somehow grabbed a cracker and ran right off the edge of the desk with it! From that day forward 'out' meant 'food' to Pecos. To be honest, I must have teased him with the food so close, but I never thought much about it at the time. He became a squirrel possessed with one and only one goal - escape to the land of food.
Now I must admit to you that pets were not allowed in "Apache Pit" as I so aptly called the dorm. Between the smell of Marijuana occasionally wafting through the air and a pet kitten roaming the halls, I really wasn't that concerned about breaking the rules.
Year two at the U of A began with my friend John and I sharing a trip from Ohio to Tucson and a room in Apache Pit. I made the mistake of letting Pecos run in the hallway when who but to my horror did appear but the Head Resident. The ground squirrel had to go. Now I never was or have been since a breaker of rules, but there was no way in hell I was giving up Pecos. The squirrel went deep undercover and into hiding. John had built a nice wood carrier that fit onto the top of his car and underneath his bed in the dorm room. It was just big enough for Pecos' cage and that's where he stayed the remainder of the semester. John had a girlfriend in Shaker Heights and to my dismay left school and me behind. That's how it usually goes - find a really cool good friend and a woman snatches him away from me. Oh well.
Pecos didn't have to stay in his hideaway all day. I had a heavy denim jacket from Sears that my parents had bought for me. It had large lined fluffy pockets. It wasn't long before Pecos was tagging along with me in one of the pockets. I don't really remember how often or where I would sneak Pecos in with me, but he never got loose although he did chew a number of small holes in the pockets.
I thought at the time that I could control Pecos by holding him tightly and bopping him on the head lightly when he tried to bite. It became a war of wills and Pecos was relentless, never giving an inch. Pecos became more ornery the more I tried to control him. Years later I can see that this was the wrong strategy.
Pecos spent most of his free time trying to escape and was able to do so often enough that he could be seen bouncing up and down in his 10 gallon aquarium cage working on his next escape. His haunches were so developed from this activity that his back end was muscle bound. Let me tell you, he was one fit squirrel.
It was a challenge to get Pecos out of his cage without being bitten. The more aggressive he became, the more controlling I became. I would put my comb in his cage to see if he was in a biting mood. His teeth were definitely not something that you wanted to have sunk into one of your fingers. The comb became chewed on the ends and better the comb than one of my fingers. No doubt this only encouraged the 'attack rat' in him.
One evening my girlfriend Karen and I were in our apartment living room sitting on the floor when she suddenly pulled her arm away from the floor next to the couch. "Your rat bit me!" she exclaimed. Pecos had evidently been lurking beneath the couch and had attacked her hand from there. Pecos always got the moniker 'rat' when he performed one of his infamous bad behaviors.
Pecos when angry or scared would back into a corner with his tail held high above him. The hairs on his tail would stand straight out and he would slowly wave his tail back and forth. He could move his tail in a sinewy motion like a snake. This was sometimes accompanied by a stamping of his feet if he was particularly angry.
I had a high quality running wheel that I hung from the cage cover that was really too small for Pecos when he was fully-grown. He would stretch from one side of the wheel to the other. His bouncing had turned him into super squirrel and it was an amazing thing is watch how fast he would get that wheel spinning. He could somehow dart out of the wheel with it still spinning and without hitting one of the bars on the side of the wheel. We're not talking the lazy way a rat or mouse runs in one of these wheels. We are talking full out full tilt boogie. How his feet never got tangled up in the holes between the metal bars at the bottom of the wheel are beyond my comprehension.
My senior year at the U of A my brother Kent and I shared the same apartment #202 at Palm Shadows. It was a year filled with a number of Pecos' antics. The seed box, the Holy Grail of the ground squirrel world was still in the closet. If he got loose he could usually be found sitting in the middle of ground squirrel heaven stuffing his cheeks with seeds. Ground squirrels don't have pouches but Pecos could stuff an amazing amount of seeds in his cheeks.
When he did get loose he would attack the unsuspecting passer-by. Maybe he was protecting his territory or his seed box but whatever the reason it wasn't long before we would post a sign on the door when Pecos got loose - 'Warning! The Attack Rat is loose!'
Then there was the refrigerator experiment where I wanted to see if Pecos would hibernate if it got cold enough. I opened the refrigerator to check on him a little bit later and found him in the belogna. End of experiment.
During the winter a funny thing happened to Pecos. He began to grow two large appendages on his rear underside that I so quaintly called his 'Jet Pods'. They were rather large and it was rather obvious what their purpose was. In the spring he lost his coat and a lighter tan coat of coarser hair began to grow. He also lost his Jet Pods. In the fall his coat changed again to a darker and softer brown coat of fur.
Once he got loose and rather than tackle the 'Terror of the West', my brother had shut him into the bathroom. Picture in your mind for a moment a small tan ground squirrel jumping up and down at a now empty toilet roll. That was the hilarious scene I observed when I opened the bathroom door. Under Pecos lay a pile of toilet paper.
The funniest incident occurred one day when we were unaware that the 'rat was on the loose'. I was in my bedroom and in walked my brother. A streak went past me across my bed and leaped up on my brother's sweater! My brother was so startled by the attack that he began waving his hands trying to shoo off Pecos. It was the funniest thing to see my 180 pound brother frightened by a six ounce 'attack rat'.
With the consent and help of the University Psychology department we trapped and collected some baby ground squirrels one spring. It was final time and I had one of the babies with me during an Accounting final. A few minutes into the test came the all too familiar piercing chirp into the dead silent air of the room. I was so embarrassed at the transgression during such a solemn and important moment, but the snickers around me eased my mind a bit. I explained that I had a baby Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel that we were using to test if they could determine which slot a piece of food would appear at in a Psychology test. I offered to remove the baby but everyone agreed that it was just fine to leave it in the cage under my desk. We went back to the test after the comedic relief.
Now I have to explain that the short chirp of the Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel is not their only vocalization. Sometimes and particularly in young ground squirrels, the chirp is repeated in what I called 'multiple chirps'. It's a funny high-pitched combination of more than one chirp. It wasn't long before the stillness of the room was interrupted by chirps and multiple chirps from under my desk. There were a lot of smiles at this and as embarrassed as I was by the noise coming from under my seat, I think the squirrel brought a little bit of relief from the stress of the final exam.
During the summers Pecos would of course travel with me back to my parent's home in Cincinnati. We used to let him run loose in the room we were in. Pecos had this strange desire to climb things. He used to jump up on and climb the speaker cloth covering our TV. He also had an affinity for our living room curtains. He would climb up to the top where we would find him for once there he never figured out how to get back down.
My friend Dave had a dog named Jerry who was fascinated with Pecos. Dave would bring Jerry down for a visit and Jerry would sit and stare fixated on Pecos. I decided to introduce Pecos to Jerry face to face. I had Dave hold on to Jerry so she wouldn't try to chomp on Pecos. It was Pecos who chomped on Jerry. Jerry wasn't hurt. Pecos had gotten all fur but that was Pecos for you - fearless and unpredictable.
The funniest Pecos moments occurred when squirrel and food intersected. Once I let him roam the kitchen table. Pecos grabbed an apple from a fruit basket on the table and was off like a flash - right off the table and onto the floor. His little feet kept going and his bounty was still in his mouth or at least as much as a ground squirrel his size could get into his little mouth.
When Pecos carried one of these large prizes off across the floor his back end had trouble staying on the floor. The apple had to weigh at least as much as he did and his back feet struggled to maintain contact with our blue carpeting. Pecos was intent to get his prize somewhere away from us and his back end up in the air as he bolted across the room was hilarious to watch. If he was carrying a graham cracker it would catch on the carpet and squirrel went head over cracker. He merely regained his balance and went back to work trying to haul off his treasure.
One year I had to fly with Pecos. I was not aware of the rules for small pet travel and didn't bother to inquire. I lined a coffee can with some carpeting and soaked some peaches in whiskey. My parents had given me a small black ceramic bear that I put in my coat pocket. Pecos went into the can. At the airport security gate I switched the bear and Pecos so the bear was x-rayed and not Pecos. I switched them back before we got to onto the plane. It was a night flight - my first time on a large DC-10. I was stuck in the middle of Coach and while everyone was sleeping took Pecos out to hold him for a while. It was a rather foolish thing to do but I couldn't resist for some reason. No one seemed to notice and fortunately Pecos behaved himself. I can just imagine the chaos that would have been caused had he gotten loose. Almost 30 years later I look back on some of the rules that I bent for the sake of Pecos and wonder just what I was thinking. People sometimes do things they would never consider doing otherwise if it is for a loved pet.
Year four Pecos was obviously beginning to show his age. He was getting gray hairs and had mellowed considerably. You could open his cage and pick him up without having to fear an attack. We had caught a few small babies that Pecos attacked at first. We clipped his teeth, which would grow back, so that he wouldn't hurt the babies. After a while he accepted them. We planned a trip to Las Vegas. All the squirrels went with us on the trip. On the way back, the generator on my Datsun pickup gave out and since it was night, I couldn't run with the lights on. I had to pull over where we slept in the back until morning. The squirrels were in a cage under a couple of boards in the rear camper and I was concerned that the boards might fall onto the glass aquarium hurting the sleeping occupant above or the squirrels below. I moved them to the front cab where I put something heavy on top to, hopefully, keep Pecos in the cage and out of the cab where he would be almost impossible to catch. When we woke in the morning, there was nothing on the top of the cage and to my horror, the little amount of sunlight that had come into the cab had killed Pecos. He lay dead on the aquarium floor. I don't know who removed the item that had been placed on top or whether I simply am remembering it incorrectly and failed to provide the shade myself. It doesn't matter too much; I can forgive the others but I have never been able to forgive myself.
Most of the baby squirrels survived the overheating but it was little consolation to me. My Pecos was dead.
Pecos was placed in a small plastic baggie where I kept him in our freezer until I could give him a proper burial. I found a large flat stone. I carved his name into the stone and took him back to Randolph Golf Course North where I buried him just outside the fence next to the golf hole where I had found him. I placed the stone on top and bid the best pet I had ever known goodbye. I'm not an emotional person but I had tears in my eyes then as I do now while I write this.
I wanted another ground squirrel and over the years I had quite a few. Pecos was a once in a lifetime pet, but I hoped for another similar squirrel. The adults I had made lousy pets. One girl squirrel I had named Babu was the exact opposite of Pecos. She was a very calm and good squirrel, but there was only one Pecos.
I have one more amazing ground squirrel story to tell you. I had sold my home and needed a place to stay. A friend of mine kindly offered up her vacant condo for a few months. I used to sit on the small patio and enjoy the Tucson weather. Beyond the parking lot there was a low wall and a small strip of land with desert vegetation and not too surprisingly a family of Round-Tailed Ground Squirrels. One day I was sitting on the patio and decided to try an experiment. I had trained Pecos to come to me when I made a squeaking sound. He knew that he would be rewarded with food if he came to me when called.
I had some piecrust and with an eye on the distant wall I gave the Pecos call. To my surprise, one of the squirrels took notice and headed my way. The curious ground squirrel came across the parking lot and climbed between the bars of the gate. I sat still wondering just how close this curious but wild animal would dare to come. I made the sound again and the ground squirrel began to climb up my outstretched leg! When he got to my knee I gave him the small piece of piecrust. And then he left the way he came with his prize in his mouth.
Now this was rather incredible and I don't blame you if you find it hard to believe. Is the call I used with Pecos the universal Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel 'here's food, come and get it sound'? It's almost as if Pecos himself had come to my beckoning call. I don't really believe that of course, but there was definitely a little bit of Pecos in that wild ground squirrel.
I have had rats, mice, snakes, fish, a dog, and now a cat, El Gato, has me, but there never has been one of my pets that had half of the personality that Pecos had.
So this is a tribute to Pecos. I named this web site in his honor.
One thing is for sure. He really lived up to his name Wild Pecos Bill. You know I really loved that little Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel Pecos.
An air-brushed T-Shirt my thoughtful girlfriend Karen had given me