Since my semi-historic bird-feeder wars of more than a decade past, I've harbored a negative impression of squirrels.
I didn't appreciate the way they could outsmart me, even after I tried every imaginable tactic to keep them from constantly stealing seeds intended for feathered friends.
On some days it felt like they had stayed up all night in some hole high in a tree using little charts and graphs to calculate how to abscond with the next day's food. I felt they were continually mocking me, as if they were the dominant species.
I always failed, despite my most inspired scheming. Other than stealing seeds, they can be seriously destructive to homes. We watched last year as one tore shingles from the roof of our backyard shed and tossed them willy-nilly into the yard.
One wag called them rats in trees, only with good publicity.
So I was understandably leery when my friend, Frankie McCroskey, adopted an orphaned squirrel that had fallen from its nest nine years ago.
He said he'd been working on a construction crew that afternoon and was sitting for a much-needed break when he watched in amazement as a tiny red squirrel gingerly crawled across the lawn, making a beeline toward him.
Reaching his chair, the infant crawled up Frankie's jeans and into his coat pocket, as if it had instantly adopted him as a parent and guardian. Thus began a long-term relationship between the 41-year-old man and what would become his beloved pet, Anna.
"She's become as much my pet as any dog or cat would be," he said. "In many ways, Anna acts like a dog, even letting out little barks, and she twitches her tail wildly and chatters when she encounters something that troubles her."
Anna has a cage in Frankie's bedroom and also is free to roam inside with him.
"She's so smart and very affectionate," he said. "And she loves it when she rolls onto her back, stiffens her little legs and begs me to rub her tummy just like a dog would." When he's not rubbing enough, Anna will take her teeth and gently lead his hand to the right spot on her belly.
In the earliest weeks, before Anna was weaned, Frankie said he fed her a tasty mixture of Pet Milk and honey. Before long, her meals had become the traditional squirrel diet of nuts.
"Today, she loves pecans and cashews the best," said Frankie. "But probably her very favorite food is those little cherry tomatoes from the supermarket. She can't get enough of those."
That reminded me how the squirrels of my past also took delight in raiding summer gardens for ripe tomatoes we never were able to harvest and enjoy. But I digress.
Frankie (who even nicknamed his human daughter Squirrel) said that while he realizes most folks see his choice of a pet as odd, he nonetheless has bonded closely with Anna over the years, as she has with him. Like traditional household pets, Anna suffers from separation anxiety when they're apart.
When he was called out of town for more than a month, his lifelong friend and roommate Jared agreed to care for Anna. But his babysitting wasn't enough to keep her from losing weight as her appetite suffered from pining over Frankie's absence.
And because she wasn't using her sharp teeth nearly as much as she had during normal feeding times with Dad, her teeth began to grow until becoming long enough to seriously interfere with her ability to chew.
When Frankie returned, she was overjoyed to have him back to crawl on and enjoy. But those overgrown teeth needed some immediate help.
"They'd become so long that I had to take her to the vet and have them ground back down to normal length," he said, rubbing behind Anna's ears. "Thankfully, before long, she was chewing again. Things returned to normal."
When not spending time together in Frankie's bedroom, Anna is most comfortable perched on his shoulders or crawling up and down his body. It's not unusual to see them both in just that way when visitors arrive.
Frankie wants others he meets to pet Anna like he does, insisting she won't bite. The one time I tried, she chattered and stared at me in a way that didn't suggest unconditional love. So I passed.
"She really is friendly and very curious. Plus, she's just so very smart and notices everything," he said. "Anna's never bitten anyone. Now, she sometimes will get nervous around strangers, which is natural for any wild animal who doesn't know if someone unfamiliar might harm them."
When looking out their bedroom window together, Anna tends to bark and twitch her tail when she sees other squirrels scampering outside. Yet she shows no desire to join them. She's perfectly content to share life with her adoptive dad.
"The fact is, she's become a great companion. We've become so close." Frankie said he misses her when he's away, even for a day or so. "The average squirrel they say can live 20 years in captivity, which means we might have another decade together."
Frankie recently texted a picture of Anna eating what else but a banana peel. "That's why I'll sometimes call her Anna Banana," he said, smiling.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]