• Rae Gellel

Meet the Rescuers: An Interview with Natalia Doran, Founder of Urban Squirrels

The campaign against the new Invasive Species Order could not have a more eloquent and informed mouthpiece than Natalia Doran, founder of grey squirrel rescue and advocacy unit, Urban Squirrels.

The Order, initially set to come into effect as of March 2019, revokes all existing licences to release grey squirrels, effectively dooming those that become injured or orphaned to death, either by euthanasia or by inaction. By extension, it will also end the rescue work of Urban Squirrels.

In her interview with The Animalist this week, Natalia spoke about why she has hope for the future, and why conservation should not have automatic priority over morality.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got into animal rescue?

I’ve always liked animals and wanted to work with them, but my life took quite a long detour. I worked in broadcasting, then I had four children, two of whom turned out to have autism, so quite a few years – decades even – were spent just being a carer. But then a few years ago, my youngest son Johnny, who is autistic, said that he wanted to work with animals.

So we got him his diploma in Animal Care, and then I started looking for a work placement for him, and it turned out to be really difficult, because although he is very strong and very clever, he is also handicapped. He doesn't quite understand his environment and all the dangers within it, and it became clear that he couldn't work, even in a voluntary capacity, and be independent one-hundred per cent of the time. Ninety-percent of the time – yes, he’d be fine, but during that ten per cent he could do something dangerous for himself, the public or the animals.

So I realised we’d have to set something up ourselves, and that's how Urban Squirrels was born. I mean, we live in London, so we thought; which animals can we help, which need can we fulfil? Grey squirrels are the only diurnal mammal that people in London see on a regular basis, and when something happens to them or when they’re orphaned, there needs to be a rescue pathway for them. And those placements, frankly, are like gold dust in rescue – because you need a licence to keep and release grey squirrels.

Johnny tending to rescued squirrels.

So that was the reasoning behind choosing to specialise in grey squirrels?

Yes, because quite a few rescues find the bureaucratic process of getting a licence thoroughly intimidating - you fill in lots of paperwork, there’s inspections involved. For me, as someone with two children with autism, I've spent all my life getting funding for them, getting statements for them, liaising with social services, so this is a walk in the park really! It’s a government department that doesn't want to give you what you want – well, fine, I deal with that all the time!

What was your first reaction when you got the news about the New Invasive Species Order?

I couldn't believe it. I read and re-read the email and thought; surely not. And even when I first posted about it on Urban Squirrels’ social media pages, I got quite a few comments saying – why are you spreading fake news? And then once other organisations began saying, we got the same email, it became awfully real. Can you briefly explain how the new Order is going to impact Urban Squirrel’s work?

The Invasive Alien Species Order will basically destroy our work entirely, so it’s a very, very serious issue for us. To begin with, it was scary – the email we got at the end of December 2018 said that said simply, our licences to keep and release were going to be withdrawn as of the end of March, and any squirrels found on the premises after that would be euthanised, full stop.

We immediately started the parliamentary petition and began campaigning, and other organisations either joined us or did their independent thing, and that campaign has fortunately won two very important concessions so far. The first is that our current licences to keep and release grey squirrels have been extended until the end of September, so we can at least rear this season’s babies and release them in peace. And the second is the promise of future licences to keep grey squirrels, but not to release.

This gives us some room to manoeuvre but really, a wildlife rescue that cannot release animals is like a hospital that cannot discharge patients - it would become some kind of horrific exercise in animal hoarding. Wildlife rescues are not zoos, we’re not equipped to keep animals long-term – we need to return them to the wild where they belong, and if that cannot be done, rescue is not possible. So because we specialise in grey squirrels, if the Order comes into effect, it will be the end of us as a rescue unit.

What are some of the arguments against the Order?

I mean, our original argument, and main argument still, is that whatever your opinion of the grey squirrel’s ecological impact, rescue numbers are too simply small to matter. A Freedom of Information request revealed the number of release licences per year as 700 – that’s in a 2.7 million grey squirrel population.

In terms of an ecological footprint, that’s negligible. But in terms of humanity’s compassionate footprint, it matters. Especially in London where ‘generation rent’ can’t afford pets, so they see animals like pigeons, crows, foxes and grey squirrels as halfway between wildlife and pets. So it’s just complete cruelty to say that there’s no rescue pathway for them if they find one that’s injured or orphaned. Of course, you can take this argument further – because the kind of crimes against the ecosystem that grey squirrels are accused of are generally either completely misrepresented or exaggerated.

Soon to be a crime?

And how is this policy going to be policed, for a start? In a country where the police force is under-resourced and are struggling to deal with knife crime – how is the law supposed to deal with people whose crime is putting wild animals back in the wild?

It’s completely mad from the view of public resources, and the view of morality as well. Realistically, I think a lot of people will quite simply ignore the law, carry on regardless and see what comes of it. Sue Hayman, Shadow Environment Secretary, asked a question in Parliament about actual convictions for wildlife crime, and there seems to be no data from 2015 onwards, and before that, there isn’t much.

There are some cautions, some warnings, but nothing serious, nothing to do with squirrels. So I think it's probably one of those laws that are made to be ignored, but it’s not good for wider society to have laws like that - that level of disengagement between the public and the legal system. There are other examples of legislation like that, such as certain kinds of property crime, or the fox hunting ban, but this law prevents people from doing their moral duty – and I can’t think of another law like that in this country, it’s unprecedented.

There are a lot of myths attached to particular species - that grey squirrels are responsible for the decline of the reds, that pigeons carry disease - why do you think these misconceptions are so hard to shake? Misconceptions are hard to shake because of the cognitive bias that people have against any new information. If they've learned something at school, through the media, then the information that challenges that is going to be very critically assessed and possibly rejected. Whereas any information of the same nature, that agrees with the narrative that people already have, is going to be accepted with little question. It’s one of the more well-known and documented psychological effects of cognitive bias.

But there is a bias against introduced species in particular, though the majority of them do no harm whatsoever, and actually contribute to the very biodiversity that is such a buzz-word these days. For some reason, introduced species are excluded from biodiversity numbers. Even if they did replace grey squirrels – well, that’s minus one, plus one – what’s the difference? Neither are an endangered species. Fred Peirce wrote a book three years ago called The New Wild, and the subtitle is ‘Why Invasive Species are Nature’s Salvation’. When we talk about invasive species, what we’re really talking about successful species – it’s an emotive term.

I say; grey squirrels are highly adaptable, successful and can live with us in our habitat, let's celebrate them. Someone else says; they’re highly invasive, let's exterminate them. The scientific facts are exactly the same behind those two attitudes. So, for a seemingly arbitrary reason, you either like them or dislike them, and you fit your narrative to that.

We should be grateful for the animals that have adapted to live with us in our ecological mess, that at least one kind of squirrel can live in our cities, and feed on our waste, and be part of the food chain, contribute to tree regeneration and so on.

How do you balance rescue work with your personal life? Is it possible? It is difficult. It's a discipline, basically; I have to decide on the number that Urban Squirrels can take in, and not exceed it by more than a hundred or two hundred! It’s also a matter of balancing your husbandry standards with the level of need. It’s very tempting to say, I’ll just take one more squirrel, even if it has to live in a cat carrier because of lack of space – it’s better than being dead. Well, yes, it is better than being dead, but nonetheless it’s inadequate.

So you have to maintain reasonable husbandry standards, and that’s where the difficulty comes in, and it can be absolutely heartbreaking at times – the need is far, far greater than we can meet. We’re trying every way to help people who call us, but sometimes, ultimately, I have to say no; or when I know that they’re taking a squirrel to a rescue centre who may possibly kill it, it’s not a nice thought. So that is the difficult balance, otherwise, it's just a matter of making some time to go on holiday and go out with your friends.

So, how do you decide when to say no?

Just about every large wildlife hospital or centre have the attitude of we either help the animal and release it, or we euthanise. So say it’s a tiny new-born baby that has to be fed overnight, and it’s decided that the facilities and volunteers aren’t available to do that, or it’s going to be an amputee and can’t be released, then it’s euthanised.

(Cledward, whose leg was crushed in a pest controller's trap - before and after surgery.)

But we have a different ethos at Urban Squirrels – we work on a first-come, first-serve basis, and if it does mean we have to spend £400 on surgery for one baby, or that baby is disabled and takes up an aviary permanently, well, then so be it.

You might overall help a higher number by euthanising in these cases, but I believe my ethos is logical, morally, because it focuses on the individual. If it is the species that matter, as in their numbers, then why are we saving pigeons or crows or squirrels at all? They’re not endangered – red squirrels are not endangered either by the way, so why the focus on saving anything but endangered species? Because intuitively, morally, we feel that these animals deserve our help – so if we acknowledge that, then we should be focusing on them as individuals.

And of course, the other reason that we help animals is because we recognise that they’re sentient, and sentience is a characteristic that belongs to the individual, not a species or an ecosystem, and that’s why, to me, the whole debate over invasive species is characterised by ethical illiteracy.

Do you have a lot of hope for the future? I do, actually. I think society is moving in the direction of being more compassionate, and animals are increasingly being included in the circle of moral responsibility. The vegan movement is a good example of the growing sensitivity to animal issues. Having grown up in Russia, I know that social change can happen very quickly and very drastically. I mean, when I was 15, or 16, if somebody had told me that within 10 years, the Soviet Union would be no more and that there’d be capitalism in its place – well, it would be like saying the Martians are going to land.

So I’ve seen it happen, it can happen, and I hope it will happen again – for animals.

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