People often ask how we train our squirrels and where we get them from. Well I can tell you that all of our squirrels are rescued. We get phone calls from people that have found a baby on the ground and don’t know what to do. We encourage them to leave them alone for a while to see if the mother comes to collect her baby and get it back to its drey (nest). Only when its quite apparent that the baby is abandoned do we agree to take it. *Note: we have licenses from the USDA and the department of Fish and Game to keep and house squirrels.
As far as training squirrels, they all have different tastes and preferences, but most of them will happily be trained for some peanut butter, sunflower seeds, tiny pieces of grape, slivers of walnut or other nuts and monkey chow (a diet used in zoo’s for many different animals, despite its name). They are usually what we call “hands off” – meaning we don’t touch them once the become fully grown as they do have quite a nasty bite! They may appear cute and cuddly, but realistically that is the last thing they want to do with a pesky human.
In the picture below you can see myself and another trainer Deborah working a trained squirrel in a park. The park was in Budapest, Hungary! You can see the box that I am holding, that is called a catch box. And this box is where the squirrel is released from and where it runs back to after he has performed. It has a doorbell type buzzer attached to it, so when I ring the buzzer, the squirrel knows to return to the box, once inside he gets a treat. we only use this box on set for the few minutes the squirrel performs. After he has done his actions, we transfer him to a larger cage that we use for traveling. At night when we return to our facility, they then get transferred to an even bigger enclosure, with tree branches and hammocks and nesting boxes.
What can you train a squirrel to do you might ask? Well, when you consider the average job for a squirrel, this may be just sitting in a tree. Easy enough I hear you say. Not so fast! We usually ask production to provide a branch or section of the tree that they want to shoot and we separate that from the real tree, so in the event the squirrel wants to go on safari, he is limited to a very small area. We have trained our squirrels to retrieve and hit a mark (like an actor), to run from “a to b”, sit and hold something, to wave and they are really good at eating. You can click on this link to see the commercial we shot in Budapest, http://youtu.be/8sBsNn48u4Y the only thing the squirrel did not do (and was added in post production) was carry the candy bar up the tree trunk. It was a fun job and very challenging, yet extremely rewarding.
You just have to remember one thing when training any animal – what is its motivation? For your dog, he may not like treats, but loves a tennis ball. Your cat may love beef flavored baby food or chunks of chicken and a rat might like dog kibble. Find out what food or toy excites your animal in training and use it to train some amazing things!