I should have ended his life there and then, when I first saw him crawling and squealing on the ground. He looked like a newborn rat or squirrel. Barely an inch and a half excluding the tail. So tiny it would have taken a miracle to last another hour without his mother. The night was dark. Using a torchlight I searched around for her but I couldn't find her. There were no sounds apart from the crickets. The night was as still as it was tempestuous a few hours before. Hopeful and, on hindsight, too optimistic, I placed him in a small box lined with soft cloth and put it in a safe spot. There was always a chance that his mother would come for him.
Earlier on that day there was a merciless storm that blew away the roof tiles of several houses. The baby rat must have been separated from his mother and other siblings, and somehow managed to crawl his way to my driveway. After leaving him in the box I went upstairs to bed, knowing I was hoping for the impossible. I prayed for either of two outcomes - that his mother would find him, or he would die peacefully in the box.
I have smashed the head of a rat before with a large rock. It was far too injured to survive and was covered in ants. Its chest was struggling to rise and fall when I raised the rock a couple of feet above him. That pause was excruciating. I kept on repeating, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry", said a prayer for it and slammed the rock onto its head. The relief came as soon as I noticed that it had stopped breathing. That was a situation I hope I am never in again. Also too optimistic a hope, as living in such a natural and harsh environment will no doubt require me to get used to having little control over outcomes.
Once upstairs I searched online on how to take care of an orphaned newborn rat or squirrel. After reading about a dozen blogs and websites, and consulting a friend who works with wildlife, I found this to be the most concise yet comprehensive. Don't be freaked out by it though. It seems like a Herculean task, more so because the baby is so very tiny and fragile. Just do what you can:
The next morning I unfolded the cloth, all the while hoping that his mother had taken him. He was still there, and to my surprise he was still alive. He was still pink, although his body felt cold. I placed him on my palm and closed it lightly so he could have some warmth. He wiggled and squealed.
I took it as a sign that he wanted to live. However, there was a black soft bump under the translucent skin on his back, a sign of internal bleeding. I explored all options, none was viable. Where would I find a vet that knew the exact dosage for any medication? Or one with any experience treating an animal of a few grammes? If he had a broken bone or a punctured organ, his best chance was to heal naturally. But he was only a few days old at best, if not only just born that night because of the storm.
I kept him in my palm to warm him up, while continuing to prepare to drive out to Karak town for supplies. The pharmacy didn't have a small pipette with a rubber tip, neither did they have catheter tubes. I didn't want to use a sponge or rag, as suggested by some websites, because he would choke if a microscopic fibre came loose. In the end there was no choice - a bit of clean cotton cloth tied with rubber band on a Starbucks stirrer...
I made some warm sugar water with a grain of salt and dipped the feeding device into it so the rag soaked some up. The moment it left the dish the liquid was stone cold. He struggled and squealed but after an hour he learnt to open his mouth to suck the liquid. Several hours later when I felt that he was properly hydrated, I started feeding him watered down goat's milk.
They say not to over feed at one go. But what is under-feeding and over-feeding in this Lilliputian world of his?
Through the day I fed him in small amounts, cleaned him, stimulated him to pee and poo. It was indeed a moment of joy and celebration when I opened up the tissue and found that he had done exactly what he was supposed to do if he were with his mother!
I WOO-HOO'd in silence, and danced in my head. After that he took a nap.
Every half hour I checked on him and he seemed fine. He responded to touch and liked to snuggle. While it took him a while to settle down he always did and would sleep either on the base of my neck or in my palm. It was the night that worried me most as he was left alone in his bed covered by a colander.
Dread was how I felt the moment I woke up, half expecting him to have died. I carefully lifted the colander, and to my delight, his little chest was moving! But with that delight came a frozen moment when I saw a curved rib protruding a little bit more than the others. I realised then that his internal bleeding was most probably due to a broken or fractured rib. On the one hand I felt panic. On the other hand I felt the relief of certainty - that all that could be done for him was all I was already doing. There's no baby rat or squirrel re-habilitation centre in this country. To search for a vet who could treat him would have taken half a lifetime in his terms. When we look after an animal that can't communicate in our language, it always comes down to just two decisions - to treat them and subject them to more suffering, or to just take care of them in their final weeks, days or hours. His life was measured in milligrams, nanometers and milliseconds. And mine at that point, in micro-decisions. What was too much, what was too little? Too soon, too late, too warm too cold?
I fed him a little watered down goat's milk and then lightly closed my palm on him to let him sleep. Twenty minutes later I checked on him and he had passed away. I did CPR on him and fluid came out of his mouth and nose. He could have had pneumonia as well.
Could it have been that extra grain of sugar or a dew drop too much milk? Was he over-fed? I didn't know what his squeals meant, whether he was hungry, too full, cold or too warm, happy, or in pain.
A friend said to me, "You showed him love". It was something that had never occurred to me before while my mind frantically tried to understand, to learn, to fix. And when it all failed, to understand what went wrong. Her words led my thoughts to a different path. I can't say it's easier, but it is closer to the truth that we seek.
I hope he did feel loved and that it eased his suffering a little. I hope he went by choice, to a place that is not too cold, not too warm, not too much, not too little, but "just nice". And I hope that wherever he is now, he is equipped with enough love to begin a new and better life. Perhaps he came into my life to show me the same.