A seemingly doomed eastern gray squirrel was found near death on a Wedgwood sidewalk in Seattle. He was nursed back to health by city officials. But the triumphant story of survival took a dark turn.
It didn’t matter how cute Peter Hawthorne was, how much he was loved or even how many powerful friends he had on his side. In the end, there was little they could do to prevent the eastern gray squirrel from dying alone on a cold and rainy January night.
This woeful tale of good intentions gone wrong involves several veterans of the criminal-justice system: Seattle’s city attorney, the lead spokesman for the Seattle Police Department and two officers with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who stand accused of giving Hawthorne a “death sentence.”
For months, city officials rallied to save the seemingly helpless wild animal, even promoting Hawthorne’s journey extensively on social media and in a city newsletter ahead of November elections.
But when state officials caught wind of the efforts — the illegal harboring of wildlife — hope for Hawthorne’s future dimmed.
“A known squirrel rescuer”
Hawthorne’s first known contact with humans was last summer when the college-aged daughter of Assistant City Attorney Kent Meyer found him lying on a sidewalk in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood.
She let it be at first but when she returned, the tiny squirrel was still there, so she took it home. Her father called his boss, City Attorney Pete Holmes.
What happened next was documented in the November 2017 newsletter sent to constituents from the City Attorney’s Office. The office’s former spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, heralded the story in a piece titled “Three Men and a Baby (squirrel).”
“It was the story I had the most joy writing in eight years,” said Mills, who retired last month. “It was about people doing something good for animals and it humanized our office.”
Mills wrote that Holmes was “a known squirrel rescuer, who now does penance for shooting at squirrels for target practice while he was growing up on a Virginia farm.”
The morning Holmes learned of the squirrel, he stopped at a pet store on his way to work and picked up puppy formula, to be fed to the animal with a syringe.
But neither Meyer nor Holmes was prepared to be the orphaned squirrel’s full-time caretaker, Mills said, so she reached out to Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
The Seattle Police Department spokesman, an avowed animal lover and the father of two young children, agreed to care for the squirrel until it was ready to be released back into the wild.
Whitcomb and his family named the squirrel Peter Hawthorne.
And judging from his Twitter account, Whitcomb fell in love.
From day one he tweeted about Hawthorne, sharing pictures and videos: drinking formula, exploring his cage, having his first walnut, enjoying a slice of Honeycrisp apple, peeking into a paper-towel tube, playing in a dollhouse, climbing a leg, sitting on a shoulder and giving squirrel kisses.
There are several pictures of Whitcomb and Hawthorne, accompanied by the hashtag “friends,” and many videos of the police officer tenderly petting the little rodent.
Whitcomb even took every Thursday off to care for Hawthorne at home when his wife had other obligations.
Meanwhile, as Mills was promoting Hawthorne’s uplifting tale, a radio reporter who follows Whitcomb’s Twitter account aired a story about the social-media “celebrity.”
About then, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife got involved.
“We received an anonymous complaint from a citizen who knew you are not allowed to possess wildlife for your own personal use and knew this was a violation of law,” said Fish and Wildlife Capt. Alan Myers.
His department called Whitcomb’s supervisors and told them he was breaking state law by harboring and rehabilitating the squirrel.
On Jan. 3, Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Kim Chandler issued Whitcomb a written warning for violating Revised Code of Washington 77.15.800. Whitcomb was told he had less than two weeks to either find a licensed wildlife-rehabilitation center that would take Hawthorne — or release the animal into the wild.
Six days later, Chandler told Whitcomb he had reached out to a wildlife-rehab center, but it declined to take Hawthorne. He also didn’t have much hope any other facility would be interested, or that Hawthorne could survive on his own.
“He probably is not going to be able to find food on his own, fend off rival squirrels or deal with predators,” Chandler said.
Whitcomb said he was told Hawthorne likely would be euthanized if taken to a licensed rehab center because of too much human contact.
“I begged and pleaded for a few more weeks, but was essentially told I needed to release him even though it was the middle of winter,” Whitcomb said.
He moved Hawthorne, and his wire cage, to the back deck of the family home and opened the cage’s door.
For a few days, it seemed Hawthorne might be all right, Whitcomb said.
He scampered up trees, harvested nuts and even played a little with a Douglas squirrel and fellow eastern gray. He hid food in his cage and also once brought Whitcomb a broken plastic toy, as if it were a present. But a few days later, Whitcomb noticed an abscess on his leg and took him to a veterinarian for treatment.
That, coupled with the bitter cold, was his “death sentence,” Whitcomb said.
On Jan. 29, Whitcomb awoke to find the little squirrel lifeless at the bottom of the cage. Hawthorne was tearfully buried in a fern- and nut-lined grave on Whitcomb’s Issaquah property.
Law and principle
A few days after Hawthorne’s demise, Mills wrote an angry email to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, with a subject line reading, “my faith in your department is gone,” and continued:
Today, I learned that the baby squirrel some of us rescued and rehabilitated last fall died overnight in the rain and cold — a fate that [Department of Fish and Wildlife] dictated.
The end to Peter Hawthorne’s story came because one of your employees forced his temporary caregiver (my City colleague) to release him into the wilds in the dead of winter instead of allowing the squirrel to grow stronger and be released in the spring. His caregiver noticed an abscess on his leg Friday and took him to the vet, who medicated him. But overnight — outside as dictated by WDFW — he died.
Honestly, don’t your employees have better things to do with taxpayers’ money?
But for Fish and Wildlife, which is charged with protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish, wildlife and ecosystems, it’s a matter of law and principle.
“Look, we know that everybody probably had the best of intentions and that they grew very attached to the squirrel,” said Myers, the Fish and Wildlife official. “It’s not unusual for people to come across what they think is abandoned wildlife and pick it up, but it almost always does more harm than good and ends up having a very negative outcome for the wildlife. That’s why it’s illegal.”
He vehemently denied that his agency issued Hawthorne’s “death sentence” and said that responsibility belongs, instead, to the people who scooped Hawthorne up, brought him inside and then proudly broadcast his story to the public.
Both Whitcomb and Holmes say they did not know they had violated state laws by taking in the squirrel.
“Not every attorney is aware of every law,” said Holmes’ spokesman John Schochet. He also said Holmes “does not plan to rehabilitate any further squirrels without addressing (Fish and Wildlife’s) objections.”
Whitcomb said he sees this as a cautionary tale.
“Sometimes good intentions and the law collide,” he said.