April 30, 2009 06:07 PM

For Carol Vinzant, the PEOPLE Pets community editor, spring is one of the busiest times of the year. As a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, she takes calls from folks all over New York City looking to help found animals. Here’s her latest dispatch from the field:

You may think of New Yorkers as tough as nails. But every year around this time I get calls from concerned, caring locals who have stayed up all night trying to save an orphaned or abandoned baby squirrel. Right now, I’m caring for three – Hayes, Garfield and Chester – who I plan to release back into the wild in a few weeks.

How do these baby squirrels wind up all alone? Sometimes their mother dies or drops them between nests. Some fall out of trees and hurt their noses. My current rescues all have different life stories and personalities. A utility worker accidentally cut down Hayes’s nest; he’s the sweetest squirrel I’ve had (but I probably say that every season!). A Staten Island woman found Garfield lying, eyes still closed, in the street. He’s very calm so I keep him warm (and frequently fed) by often carrying him in my zippered shirt pocket (if I don’t tell anyone, no one knows he’s there!). Some dutiful Queens students brought me Chester after he followed them around their yard for days. Since he lived in the wild the longest, he’s more of a grump, like a true New Yorker.

I got my start in squirrel rehab when someone found a squirrel in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park, and I took it home so workers wouldn’t send it to the city pound. Later, I passed a test and got a license in 2006 from New York state, and sought advice from other rehabbers. Since then, I’ve released about a dozen squirrels back into Tompkins, where they get plenty of food and attention from people.

The main duties of a surrogate squirrel parent are keeping them warm, hydrated and fed. At first they eat esbilac, a puppy milk formula, about every four hours. If you have the right nipple tip for an oral syringe, it’s pretty easy. Also, they can’t relieve themselves without “stimulation:” Their mom licks them; I use a wet tissue.

As they grow, they drink milk less frequently and start to eat solid foods like apples, grapes, veggies, nuts and fresh branches. Eventually, just like real kids, they become teenagers and don’t want to cling to me anymore. I put a wood box in their cage, which they move into. Later, park rangers at Tompkins let me hang their box in a tree, then I release the squirrels at the base. And that’s home sweet home for them, for the rest of their lives. Is it sad to say goodbye? A little. But it’s sweet that they still recognize me when I come to visit.

Meet Carol’s baby squirrels in the video above!

See Carol’s PEOPLE Pets profile!

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