Dressed all in black, Emily Jones tossed a few shelled walnuts to a tree in Dunn’s Woods in memory of Bear, the most loyal squirrel she’d ever known.
Flurries of snow fell around her. Jones stood on one of many red brick paths crisscrossing the brush through which Bear used to scurry.
“I met her here on this corner a couple years ago,” Jones said.
A squirrel known by thousands, Bear died Feb. 4 after a veterinarian, a vet technician and a wildlife rehabber determined she had to be euthanized. She was 3 years old.
Bear was a female fox squirrel. She could have lived to be as old as 12.
Jones graduated from IU last year and now works for the university. While she was a student, she founded the @squirrels_of_iu Instagram page, which documents the lives and personalities of squirrels Jones and others have gotten to know on IU’s campus for an audience of 13,000.
It’s a place to congratulate squirrels Mike and Charlotte on their upcoming litter and to discuss whether George and Damian are gay or merely cohabitating.
At IU, a squirrel isn’t just a squirrel. Followers mourned Bear’s death with hundreds of comments.
It all started over the summer, when two people sent a message to the account saying they saw a group of boys shooting squirrels with pellet guns in Dunn’s Woods near the Sample Gates. Jones later found Bear bleeding from her neck.
Bear was defensive at first but let Jones feel the wound the next day. Jones said she pulled a small lead pellet from her neck.
Jones began treating Bear with antibiotics that seemed to help her heal. But Bear’s recovery was marred by false starts and dashed hope.
Jones took the squirrel to a clinic Nov. 15 in Indianapolis, but decided not to leave her there. Without a wildlife rehabilitation license, Jones would have no control over what happened to her. As a wild animal, Bear was state property, and there was no guarantee she would end up being released back onto IU’s campus.
She continued to treat Bear on her own. To give her medicine, Jones called her name in Dunn’s Woods. No matter how high up in a tree she was, Jones said, Bear would always scamper down.
Jones crushed up Bear’s antibiotics and mixed them with almond butter on her finger. Bear was happy to lick it off.
Bear was a gentle squirrel, Jones said. She would cover nuts with a leaf because she had trouble burying food.
Jones named Bear in the summer of 2017 because of her round ears and football-shaped forehead. She was a slower squirrel, and the shouldering, bear-like walk she developed while recovering helped her grow into the name.
In the summer, Bear napped on the curved branches of trees by the Kirkwood Observatory. When she was excited, Bear flapped her paws together and opened her mouth. Bear liked to have her belly rubbed, something Jones said was off-limits to anyone but her.
On the Instagram, Jones posted beauty shots of Bear in the light of a setting sun, photos of her eating nuts posed next to a miniature squirrel picnic table and videos of her taking medicine. Thousands of people watched Bear slowly recover. In the comments, followers considered the potential merits of CBD oil and suggested anti-itch remedies.
Bear seemed to be improving until early January, when Jones noticed a hard, oozing lump on the other side of her neck. Bear was getting worse, and posts about her condition became more serious. Bear needed a vet.
Jones was referenced to Katja Kimball, a licensed wildlife rehabber based in Martinsville, Indiana. Now that Kimball was working with Jones, they could take Bear to a vet without losing track of her.
IU sophomore Lauren Duffy helped trap the squirrel. It took almost two weeks.
The day Bear was finally caught, Duffy said she realized how sketchy she looked standing in the middle of the woods with an angry squirrel in a trap. Duffy did her best to cast off suspicion.
“Oh I can't wait until we get you to the vet, Bear,” Duffy said in the woods. “You're going to feel so much better at the vet."
Jones took Bear back to the vet Jan. 26 in Indianapolis with the help of two other friends. She was diagnosed with an infection that had spread from her pellet wound to her teeth.
The vet recommended Bear have her teeth pulled, which would have meant life in captivity as an educational animal, Kimball said. Jones and Kimball agreed to put Bear on stronger antibiotics to fight the infection.
Jones needed to raise $600 to pay for a CT scan on top of vet and rehabber costs. Donations poured in. All together, followers donated about $1,000 for Bear.
Bear spent nine days in a cage under Kimball’s care. She chewed the bars, likely making the infection worse. It seemed clear that Bear would not be happy in captivity.
When another veterinarian looked at Bear for a second opinion Feb. 4, it became clear that the quirks that made Bear who she was were actually small adaptations she had made to deal with her injuries.
An X-ray found that Bear’s arm had been fractured and healed improperly and her jaw was misaligned. Bear was also missing a tooth, and another tooth fell out while she was being examined.
The vet, Kimball and the vet technician decided that Bear needed to be euthanized.
“The bottom line is I have to think about the animal first," Kimball said. “I know it was the right decision.”
Bear was under anesthesia when she was given a euthanasia shot in her heart, Kimball said. Kimball petted Bear as she died.
Jones couldn’t be there. Kimball said the clinic she took Bear to isn’t open to the public. Kimball texted Jones about Bear’s euthanization that night. She said she wasn't sure how to deliver the news.
“I don’t understand….,” Jones wrote back.
Bear’s remains were sent to be cremated. Kimball saved one of Bear’s teeth to give to Jones.
Jones knows the euthanasia put an end to Bear's suffering, but she wonders if she could have done more.
People were invested in Bear’s recovery for months. Jones said she felt like she owed it to Bear to bring her back to health because she brought happiness to so many people.
“She put a smile on everyone's face,” Jones said.
When she walks through Dunn’s Woods, she said she’s still expecting Bear to greet her. She can’t help scanning the branches, even though she knows Bear isn’t there.
Bear is survived, as best as Jones can tell, by her father Bumpkin and her brother George.
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