Despite my general respect for the numerous little creatures that frequent the garden from time to time, there are occassions when I am compelled to make exceptions. For the cuddliest ones can sometimes be the most deceiving, and while I would love to make the space a home for all the animals that stumble upon it there are others who would not be so forgiving.
One cloudy afternoon, the only sound that seemed to permeate the garden was a rough scraping, like something being shredded. A slight shiver of dread seized me as I stepped out to investigate. The culpirt was there in full view – a brown plantain squirrel clinging on face-down to a torch ginger stem, scraping off the bark with its sharp lower incisors and leaving great strips of green hanging in limp ribbons off the plant. At my approach, it flinched – tensing for the inevitable. My mother yelled and clapped her hands loudly, sending my dog flying towards the yard in an attempt to scare off the little rascal. And remarkably, it didn’t retreat straightaway. I saw it lurking at the top of the stone wall behind the ginger grove, watching and waiting for a ripe oppurtunity to continue its foraging.
The mundane activities of the plantain squirrel have always drawn ire from the other members of my family. It not only tears the bark off stems and tree trunks, but will strip the leaves off of branches and gladly help itself to any fruits within its reach. And yet in some ways, the plantain squirrel is a more innocuous creature than its red and grey relatives in the West. For one, it doesn’t steal food from parkgoers or compete with native species. In fact, as one of the few native mammals common to Singapore’s urban areas, it could sometimes add momentary colour to the day with its intrepid antics. Many of my classmates would lean over the balconies of the classroom windows just to watch one perched in a distant tree, captivated by the surprise encounter. There was even one particularly brave little specimen who also used to run along the pipes under the ceiling and on stair railings. I have no idea if it was aware of the danger that could have been posed to it from the school administration (which had mercilessly torn down a sunbird’s nest built on one of the potted palms outside a board room), and admired it regardless.
And so I find myself quietly rooting for these garden pests. They face not just immediate threats to their freedom in the form of disgruntled gardeners and janitors, but also encroachment on their natural habitat in the form of the ever-expanding city-state. And yet, they have managed to take this all of this in their stride. These squirrels continue to thrive, be it in the crowns of trees at the public parks or scampering across pavements to reach safe ground. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their other Southeast Asian cousins: at least one of whom, the cream-coloured giant squirrel, seems to have been wiped out with advent of industrialisation on the island.
The same squirrel that had tried to savage my mother’s ginger plants has lately reappeared in her frangipani trees. I’ve seen it fight with mynas (and always outnumbered), jump from house and house, and continue intruding on our plants with shameless abandon. Some days, I wonder if it is the same squirrel that I had found as a baby several years ago, abandoned in the husk of a dead tree outside the garden fence. I had tried to take it in, but it had constantly wailed for its mother, and at the end of the day I had placed it back in the tree in the hopes that they would be reunited. It is my fervent hope that they indeed were, or that this little squirrel had otherwise survived and grown to adulthood and continued being the little fighter it was. So I never try to chase it away whenever I see it – part of me will always root for it in its daily struggle for survival, and admire its understated tenacity.
Perhaps the plantain squirrels have a greater purpose with their adorable appearance – of helping to foster an appreciation of whatever little wildlife the island has left. And though it is a worthy symbol of resilience, it is also worth remembering that these seemingly common creatures also need to be cherished. The day we no longer see even the most widespread of urban species jumping through the trees would be a sad day indeed.