A furry Sputnik zips through our life

We were setting our full pails of wild huckleberries in the trunk of the car when we heard a growl and a scramble at a nearby pine tree. Our cocker spaniel pranced out of the low huckleberry bushes with a rodent in her mouth.

"Look, Dad," our 8-year-old son, Max, said. "Taffy caught a chipmunk."

"Taffy, fetch that here," my husband, Glenn, ordered.

Taffy dropped the chipmunk at Glenn's feet and backed up. It lay motionless, but a quick check showed it was still alive.

We were wary about helping a wild animal, but we couldn't just leave it there, helpless. We decided to take it home long enough for it to recover.

Glenn put on leather gloves to pick it up (chipmunks have very sharp front teeth) and placed it in an empty bucket. We punched holes in the lid, and set the bucket by the other pails full of berries.

When we got home, we put the chipmunk in an empty bird cage and set the cage on the floor of the utility room.

Glenn called a vet, who told him the chipmunk should be fine, if left alone.

From the encyclopedia we learned that chipmunks belong to the squirrel family and live in colonies in burrows. They eat mostly seeds, nuts, and berries, and carry food in their cheek pouches. They can become quite tame.

We set a dish of water and some food - oatmeal, apple seeds, and raisins - in the cage. We fastened the door.

The next morning, the chipmunk was sitting up in the middle of the cage, showing a creamy-white stomach. It streaked into a corner and looked at us with dark, beady eyes. Its bushy tail lay to one side, rather than curling over its back in squirrel fashion.

"After work, we'll take him back to the hills," Glenn said.

"Let's keep him for a pet," our 12-year-old daughter, Carol, begged.

"How would you like to be taken out of a big forest and locked up in a little cage?" Glenn replied.

But later, as Carol opened the cage door to refill the water dish, the chipmunk brushed past her hand and out the door. It raced across the linoleum and disappeared behind the washing machine.

Oh no! We searched behind the washer and dryer and through the utility closet. No chipmunk. I jumped at every movement I saw out of the corner of my eye. "Keep Taffy outdoors," I said.

We hatched a plan: Put food in the cage and leave the door open. Wait for the chipmunk to go in to get the food, and quickly shut the door.

Meanwhile, the chipmunk turned our house into his private forest. It left mouselike tracks from the flour bin to my lingerie drawer. We put all food in containers with lids.

After a week or so, the chipmunk found the food in the cage and quit looking for it in cupboards and closets. But he carried the food away during the night, so we had no chance to trap him. Lacking a burrow, he stored food all over the house. We found caches beside chair legs, by cushions, and in the corners of windowsills. Each pile had a kernel of wheat, an apple seed, a raisin, a nut, and so on.

The chipmunk often ran within sight, but always out of reach. While we were reading or watching TV, he might startle us by streaking across the floor in a series of short jumps, leap to the drapes, and scurry up.

Because the chipmunk was so swift, we named it Sputnik, after the first Russian satellite. Sputnik would leap like a little trapeze performer, four feet from the top of one window to the next. He scurried along the baseboards, disappeared behind the piano, and reappeared on top. We laughed to see him sitting up beside a family picture, his white tummy showing, as if telling us he was part of our colony now. I put away fragile vases and figurines.

During meals, Sputnik sat on the railing of the stairway by the kitchen table, begging pathetically with his nose pointing up and his forepaws folded across his white tummy. He'd snatch food from our hands. Perishables, such as bread or fruit, he ate on the spot. But he stuffed nuts into his cheek pouches and continued to beg until his cheeks were bulging. Then he'd streak away to store his haul.

Sputnik got so brave that he would run across the back of a chair or couch on which we were sitting. When we had snacks, he assumed the "starvation pose" at our shoulder until we held out enough nuts or popcorn to fill up his pouches. If we touched him, he was gone in a blink: His only interest in us, it seemed, was as a source of food.

I became so attached to Sputnik that I ignored the tiny inch-long footprints that decorated polished tabletops and the snags his toenails made in the drapes.

After a few weeks, Sputnik was going into his cage during the day, but he skittered out if we came near.

Once I saw him drink from his dish, lapping like a cat. Then he sat up and washed himself by licking his forepaws and quickly swiping them across his face and body. Finally, he picked up his tail with both paws and combed his teeth through its entire length.

We didn't want to part with Sputnik, but we knew he needed to be back in the forest to prepare for winter. We took the cage to a pet store and had a door put on that would spring shut when he went through it.

Sputnik was trapped the first night, and crouched miserably in the corner of his cage, not eating. He continued to crouch when Max set the cage on the car seat for the trip back to the woods. But he began to circle wildly when Glenn set the cage at the foot of the pine tree where we'd found him.

Glenn opened the cage door.

Sputnik zipped out and scurried up the tree. Once out of reach, he turned, looked down at us with beady eyes, and gave a chipping chirp. Other chipmunks joined in, and the chirping became a chorus.

We'd never heard him make that noise before. "Would you talk to someone who didn't understand your language?" Glenn offered, and laughed.

"I'm glad he's with his colony now," Carol said as she helped me spread a cloth over the picnic table.

Sputnik traveled back down the tree head first. He leaped onto the table and chirped.

"You are talking to us, and I understand you," Max said, shaking peanuts onto the table from a bag.

Sputnik snatched up as many nuts as he could carry and stuffed them into his pouches without shelling them. He even stuffed one sideways in front of his teeth. He leaped to the foot of the tree and disappeared into a concealed hole.

Our house felt empty without Sputnik popping up to surprise us. We often talked about his antics. And now, when we go berry-picking and a chipmunk leaps onto our picnic table, we call it Sputnik.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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