The Great Escape – The Full Story 1997

 

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Eutamias (Siberian chipmunk – sp. Eutamias sibiricus)

The Great Escape – The Full Story

Recently Britchy of Bitchin’ in the Kitchen asked if l had any experience with Chipmunks and l can honestly say hands upon heart that l truly do! This is a very much loved rodent species of mine. Long before l started galavanting with the likes of llamas, raccoons, coatis and other what nots my exotic brokerage business was principally started on the back of my commercial rodent business. Rodents therefore were my first introduction into all the other animal species that followed over the years.

The chipmunk as a squirrel is/was a very popular and endearing species that not only private collections sought but also they were in a huge demand from the likes of garden nurseries, small animal parks and wildlife parks and centres due to the animations of the species themselves, in other words they are a great little animal to simply watch, and serve as a tremendous tourist attraction for centres that did not have huge budgets for larger species, and the required enclosures to keep them secure within.

I started breeding chipmunks in 1996, after l saw a pair of natural agouti for sale in the local paper, and it wasn’t long before l too became utterly captivated with these charming little animals. I was enamoured by them so much so, that the following year l purchased a small but well established breeding colony of some 15 animals, which comprised of a breeding male, and some 9 breeding females, the remainder were youngsters from that year. What was also lovely about this particular group was that it was made up of 3 albinos, 5 cinnamons and the rest were the natural agouti or wild colour more people are familiar with.

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Where l was located at the time with my business was on a haulage firm in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire that happened to have portacabins available to rent, which were sited on the adjoining farm, because the two owners were brothers, so it was a very amicable arrangement for both parties.

In those days, l ran 6 portacabins with my animals. One was used for gerbils only, another for mice and hamsters, another for rats, one each for rabbits and guinea pigs and the final cabin was used purely for my chipmunks. Each of the cabins measured between 20 – 45 feet long,and you gained access to them usually either at the end or in the middle.

The chipmunk cabin measured 45 feet long and you gained access from the end and when you entered if you looked immediately to your left, there was a small space of around 12 feet deep by about 12 feet wide and about 8 feet high. In this space was my custom built wooden framed and wire enclosure for my breeding pair, whom had had a small litter of their own earlier in the year. However if you looked to your right, there was a much bigger enclosure for the main breeding group. Their space was around 30 foot long, by 12 x 8 a much much larger space reflective upon the actual numbers.

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I had spent a lot of time making these internal enclosures and making sure they were secure, because rodents being rodents and in case you don’t know ‘rodents from the latin rodere which translates to ‘to gnaw’. So all enclosures for the chippies had to be 1005 secure otherwise the blighters would simply chew their way out. In order to encourage them to NOT do that, l recreated in each enclosure a mini natural envionment for them. They had logs and branches and hidey holes, leaves, rocks, trunks and in fact anything you might be able to think of naturally l had there, but l also made rope climbs, tyre hides, nest boxes, the lot. Each enclosure was the same, and each enclosure was entered via a very solid door with a metal frame.

I wanted them to feel comfortable within their environments, so they would breed. They were fed a top quality diet and one that l lovingly tried where possible to recreate to as natural as possible consisting of nuts, grains, seeds, worms, fungi, insects and plant and vegetable matter.

What l used to love about the chipmunks was that you could walk into each enclosure and just sit on the floor and wait, and then they would all come to you and play on you. the youngsters especially had no fear, they were inside your clothing, sleep in your pockets and if you weren’t careful, you could easily walk outside with a sleepingchipmunk and not know if. I know this as it happened a couple of times!! They were just incredibly and remarkably friendly and loving.

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Sounds really lovely doesn’t it …. ?

Okay, so let’s roll on to the year 2001, when those portacabins holding the chipmunks were now very well established and were confirmed breeders. Chipmunks once established can breed twice a year with the average litter size ranging from 4 -7, sometimes these litters can be as high as 11, and as low as 3, but the average l was enjoying was about 5. All the young once at the required age which for my sales were around 9 weeks old, although many sold them younger, but that was them, not me, were sold and over those years l bred perhaps 300 – 400 youngsters. The colonies were now quite large and l had to manage the ratio of male to females with responsibility. Too many males and fighting would occur, too few and breeding suffered, too few females the same results, so it was a very specific case of livestock management.

in 2001, in the large colony l had 8 breeding males and allocated roughly 3 females to each male, so l was running quite a few. In addition to what l bred for sale, l was also importing from Europe huge quantities of captive bred stocks. between 1997 – 2005, l probably handled close to 3500 chipmunks.

In addition to ensuring that the management of the stocks and the ratios was equal, every six months l had to undergo security measures with the portacabins – because they were rodents and they could gnaw, so the last thing you wanted to have happen was an escape …. famous last thoughts in truth! The one l haven’t said yet, is that all the portacabins had glass windows which allowed for light. stands to reason doesn’t it?

Except because they were glass windows with metal frames, l never once considered putting mesh over the windows. nope, not once!!!

The 30th June 2001 was a truly beautifully sunny day, it was absolutely glorious – l remember it vividly. Upon waking and lcould already feel the warmth of the day as it streaked through the crack in the curtains. It was going to be a busy day for me with the animals, l had 101 jobs needing to be carried out, and had set the alarm early so as to be up at the portacabins just before 8am. It didn’t take that long to walk up to the farm from the house, usually about 20 minutes, so l made myself some lunch and set off just after half seven.

I was in a pretty good mood despite being in a relatively dark place, sadly it was the early days of the depression and breakdown, and so my business whilst being marginally stressful was actually serving more as a sanctuary for mindfulness and wellbeing. Working with animals is supposedly a great way to unwind …

I made good time with my walking, l had an early transport arriving at 11am and had to make ready 400 Mongolian gerbils for the order out, next to a few hundred assorted rats, mice and hamsters, but more importantly a requirement for 20 9 week old young chipmunks.

Upon arriving, l ensured that l fed my two Tom cats Bob and Bob, who l did notice at the time were somewhat restless and antsy, but just figured they were eager to get back to the hunting. They were big Toms, and despite being remarkable hunters, they were worked together as the brothers they were and used to tackle relatively large game like two lions, such as huge rats and hare. But the true beauty of the two Bobs was they never NOt once ever attacked any of my animals, and in truth if anything acted like a pair of guard dogs or in this case ‘cats’.

Most days upon arrival, l would feed the cats, then perform a quick perimetre check on the livestock and then start my day according to the day’s agenda. So that morning, l fed the two Bobs, let them out and then proceeded to walk around the buildings saying good morning to everyone – as the animals always appreciated that. So rabbits, guinea pigs, smaller rodents and then the chipmunks.

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I had to start with the chipmunks first, because despite being remarkably friendly they were little buggers when it came to capturing them, especially in the microenvironment, so they had to be the first part of the order to deal with.

As l approached their cabin, l noticed the two Bobs were seemingly in a trance like state, they looked like they had been hypnotized – they were just staring at something underneath the cabins. You see these particular cabins were sitting on railway sleepers and so under each unit was a gap of around 12″ and my two toms were mesmerised by something under this particular cabin. As l approached they both started to miow to me, and l should have listened to them and asked them what was up.

But l didn’t, perhaps had l had done, l would have been alerted to the problem quicker. But l didn’t, instead l unlocked the door andwalked into the building. Normally l would have been greeted by the beautiful chirrupping of the chips. The smaller enclosure greeted me, but the bigger unit was incredibly quiet. In truth, there was very little movement, especially considering that this particular enclosure held over 30 adults and l knew there to be close to 30 perhaps 40 youngsters, so for something which had around 70 animals, it was remarkably quiet …………. too quiet!!?

What gave the game away?

Well it might’ve been the two Bobs who were trying to tell their dad something at the doorway or, or, or it may have been the chipmunk who suddenly landed upon my shoulder suddenly out of nowhere! Scaring the crap out of me, and started to nuzzle into my neck! I think if anything, it was THAT!!

Suddenly l was on a form of heightened panic mode, had there been some kind of break out from the actual environment? I quickly and softly hed the adult female and placed her as a precautionary measure into a temporary cage and started to scour the remaining space outside the two units, where upon l found three more adult females and 3 youngsters. With now 4 adults and 3 young, l knew that of the population inside the larger enclosure that maybe just maybe, the breakout was in fact confined ONLy to the building, but no amount of searching high and low produced any more animals.

the next step was to check the smaller enclosure and found all the animals accounted for there, which could only mean the problem was in the larger unit. Checking everything ouside in so far as frame work proved that it was still secure. So grabbing a couple of transport cages l went into the enclosure to start a serious audit. it was at that point that l saw the break – the main window had a massive hole, the trunk leaning against it was actually sticking out through the glass in comparison to simply resting against it!

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“Oh SHIT!!” I said in alarm, this was NOT good news, not good at all. I fought back my panic and taking deep breaths, started the slow and weary process in as fast a mode as l could of capturing the internal stocks to see what was missing. After about twenty minutes l had caught, 15 adult females and around 25 youngsters. So l could deduce that what was missing was my 8 adult males, 9 adult females and roughly 12 youngsters!

Now, l knew the real stress mode would kick in. Ensuring the captured stocks were placed together into a larger but totally secure temporary cage, l grabbed some wooden transport boxes and both a keep net and a livestock net and ventured outside with the heaviest gloves l could conjure up.

There are a couple of things about any squirrel species, that not many people may know about. I have worked with many squirrel species since 2001, and my knowledge of the antics of the species overall is pretty sound, but back then the only species l had worked with were chipmunks and a few flying squirrels, although l did have experience with Sugar gliders.  The two most significant behaviours of squirrels is 1] their outstanding speed and 2] their painful ability to bite and draw blood. So having thick gloves was absolutely essential.

Playing with the chips inside familiar surroundings is one thing, but totally different to trying to capture them in an outside environment with a trillion and one natural hiding areas!

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This was NOT going to be easy nor fun! I had to try and capture potentially 25 animals in a seriously large space, that was occupied by farm machinery, portacabins, haulage trucks and worse than that – acres and acres of ground, farm land! I was quite impressed at how calm l was, considering the mammoth task l had ahead of me!

I think it is safe for the reader to assume this wasn’t going to last …

Where was l going to start? How was l going to remain calm and tackle this enorous task? Keeping calm was going to be the optimum to ensure success. A chantra was possibly the way forwards?

“I will be successful, l am successful, l have been successful!” Yeah, like that’s really going to cut it!

The two Bobs were sitting side by side looking at their dad in his get up, lumbering around the various nets and cages almost quzzically, and if l didn’t know any better appeared to be grinning. “Right lads, where be the Chippies then?” Bob looked at his brother Bob and then miaowed and walked under the portacabin and miaowed again, whilst the second Bob walked around the back of the cabin and miaowed. Was this a clue? Amidst all the clutter under the cabin, were there some little sneakies?

Yes, as it happened there were! 4 albino youngsters sitting there looking at me and the two Bobs! A simple netting and they were caught, well l figured this is going to be easy maybe, easier than l had originally thought. So with these youngsters trapped and quickly transferred to the temporary cage inside, l now only had roughly 21 animals left, were they going to be so easily caught?

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I looked at the clock on the wall, blimey it was nearing 11am already and pretty soon that transport was going to be here and although l had the youngsters required, the rest of the shipment wasn’t ready! They say time is of the essence, and l knew that if l was to break off from the capture that time would work against me, so all l could do was carry on and explain the situation to Ron when he arrived.

Ron arrived later than planned, in fact he turned up at around half eleven, by that time l had caught another 2 youngsters whom had literally walked up to me and had almost begged for me to put them into the cage. The number was now only 19 left. Ron basically said he would help me capture the outstanding members of the colony as l was his only pick up for the day and so there was no rush. He had been delivering to the area and as it was a warm day indeed, the stocks were better off where they were, and the stress levels of the youngsters would be greatly reduced by staying where they were for the time being.

Two was way better than one and l still have the fascinated attention of the two Bobs whom were especially useful with their non aggressive hunting skills, and in literally an hour Ron, Bob, Bob and l had caught up the remaining youngsters with an added bonus of actually capturing more than l thought had escaped originally. Luckily the youngsters whilst curious had stayed together in 2′ and 3’s.All in all now, l had a total of 42 youngsters, meaning l still had just and hoped only the adults to ensnare!

With the confidence of Ron, l had managed to stay somewhat calm, however at around 3pm Ron suddenly decalred that he would have to go, but what he would do was come back mid week and collect the order then, he bade me both farewell and good luck. “Capturing the adults Rory is going to be a long, arduous and l think potentially painful experience. Here take my gloves they are thicker, l have been in this situation before, and when they bite they aim to remove parts of your fingers!!”

In addition to losing Ron, the two Bobs had also got bored and moved into the fields for bigger game, so now l was left alone and feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the task ahead of, trying to fight down the panic. a voice behind me brought me to my senses. “So what’s the score then matey, how many are outstanding, thought you could use a hand and we have come prepared!”

Turning around, l saw Pete, the haulage manager with his brother Richie and three of the haulage lads, standing there looking absurb but welcome. They all had on either huge overalls with huge welding gloves, or goggles and both the brothers were donned in protective bee keeping outfits and all were armed with the sprayers used to calm bees, nets and walkie talkies!!

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“Why the smoke Pete and why the white suits?” I asked.

“Well the white is a non aggressive colour you see and Ron before he left said you were starting to get a little stressed, Rich and l figured that the smoke may flush the adults out. Ron said that the adults were going to be bastards to capture and might be somewhat viscious when handled? Now with the job we do, our hands are pretty tough, and we figured they would probably take a bite or two, but when Ron said that they could take fingertips off, we had a rethink. We have a slow day today and have been watching the antics and figured it might be some light hearted fun and help you out?”

They were right, now l had a team of five who wanted to help, the walkie talkies were a strategic blessing, if an animal was spotted, they could tell the others without alarming the animals and causing further stress or equally as important losing sight of them. We were also bloody lucky it was June and the days stayed lighter for longer, but also because it was a haulage firm, if needed they said they would set up the search lights – wow how awesome would that be l thought, to have the entire farm and site lit up like a giant football pitch!

With us all working together things became much easier and as the day slowly started to creep away, successes were made. By 6pm we had managed to capture 14 of the missing animals and in fact the only 3 left outstanding were males. All the others had been caught up with ”very” little mishap and by this l mean a couple of bites to arms, one ear and one nose [mine]. I was astonished at just how far some of the animals had managed to get to in consideration. Luckily most had strayed not far from the initial escape point.

However it was the last 3 males that were the right sods, they we were led to believe were really enjoying being out and even more so loving the attentions of everyone trying to remain calm but chasing after them. By 7.30 pm, only 1 animal remained out – the lead breeding male! The others had given up and surrended and given in to treats by Rich who had simply sat down on the asphalt drive and waited for them to come to him. They still had some fight to them though, and in order to make things easier, he had taken off his gloves to encourage them up his legs and sit in his hands. The pair had done exactly that …

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And as they sat there on his hands, he had caught them both, by slowly cupping them. But their bite is indeed painful and bloody, and seriously bloody painful and lethal for such a small animal, and one bit him through the soft fleshy part of the thumb so severely that it snagged a tendon and after they were placed into the holding cage. Rich had to take himself off to hospital with his wife to get the rip seen to as the blood wouldn’t stop flowing! The phrase, may be small , but mighty came to mind!

The remaining chipmunk was not hard to spot, he was an albino, and when inside the enclosure hadn’t looked that big an animal, but outside on the run like some kind of deranged and laughing and chirruping beast – he looked huge!

He was bloody fast and l was remarkably and constantly in awe of his ability to both run and jump at speed considering his small size in consideration to say a normal sized squirrel species. In short he was imp[ressive and he knew it. He was fully aware of the run around he was giving us all, and was not in the slightest bit fazed. So much so, many a time he took to running out of his hiding space and running between the legs of his persuers, or jumping down on them from atop higher ledges, and it was more than once during that day that hw was seen on the heads or shoulders of his would be chasers! But nothing we could do could motivate or enthuse him to actually give himself up!

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In the end, l had to make an executive decision, people had to stop and get on with their lives and not dedicate anymore of their time to one white chipmunk who was playing silly buggers.  I called a halt to everything at 10.30pm, l had been chasing squirrels for over 14 hours and was tired and hungry but worse than that, l still had all the animals to feed and water, as well as repair the enclosure, even if just temporary. It was pointless going home, so simply stayed and attended to everything, and by the time l was done, it was nearly 6am the next day.

The chipmunk, had been in my sight the whole time, he was sitting on one of the portacabin rooves and kept jumping between the buildings watching me, but every time l went outside to try and lure him in, he laughed and jumped away again.

I never caught him, but he became a regular to the workshops and l learned a few years after that day, that Richie had finally manage to capture him, but befriending him with nuts and treats, and pretty soon the pair became inseperable till “Whitey’s’ death in 2012, a bloody good innings for a chipmunk if l say so myself! Richie used to walk around with Whitey on his shoulder or peering out from his pocket in his overalls.

The Great Escape taught me a lot about chipmunks, and that if anything was one of the best learning curves of that whole stressful day. That as much as they loved their indoor enclosure, when not stressing l had watched and observed their behaviour outside, and what was clearly apparent was that they liked lots of space and the freedom to really run and jump. So over the next three months with the help of Pete and Richie, we built two enormous cages for the chippies. they were constructed like fort knox!

There was a double door entry system, and side wire tunnels shooting off outside the sides that led back into the cage. A concrete base, because what many keepers don’t realise with chipmunks is that they are superb burrowers and if they can dig out – they will, but equally rats would burrow and tunnel in. The enclosure measured perhaps 25 by 25 feet wide and long and around 10 feet high. This allowed for that running and jumping movement we had seen.

When l left the premises in 2002 l gave the brothers the cage and the animals as a thank you gift. They loved the chipmunks, and so did their kids and where l was going, l didn’t have the space for two large enclosures. But also and more importantly, l learned a truly valuable lesson that day which was ‘that more space is never too big when it comes to captive freedom’ of animals and when l sold the species on l always insisted they they go into as large an enclosure as the keeper could provide, otherwise l refused to sell them, hence why in many respects l sold more chipmunks to private game parks, small zoos and special entertainment venues or garden nurseries who could provide ample space.

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