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After epic court battle, couple get to keep tame squirrel

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) It was a classic fairy-tale struggle between a muscular giant and a wee, furry creature of the forest.

At the center was a victim whose loved ones spent more than $5,000 on legal fees to protect her and even spirited her away to a "safe house" during their court battle.

Supporters set up a Web site encouraging others to fight for her freedom, and the American Bar Association Journal chronicled her legal case in its November issue.

Just who is the object of all this attention? Why, it's Nutkin, a tame, 10-year-old gray squirrel, with a fondness for belly rubs.

The saga of Nutkin, named for the squirrel in the Beatrix Potter tale, began two years ago when her owners, a Schuylkill County couple, were charged by the Pennsylvania Game Commission with possessing a "wild animal" without a permit.

What followed was a test of wills. The couple asserted that the commission should be working to stop people from hunting illegally on private land and should leave their squirrel alone.


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But the commission said it was pursuing a violation of the law and could not turn a blind eye to the squirrel.

After losses in two lower courts, Nutkin achieved victory this month when the state Superior Court threw out the charges.

The court wrote: "Nutkin would soon learn the shocking truth that the cheery Pennsylvania slogan, `You've got a friend in Pennsylvania,' did not apply to critters like Nutkin."

The squirrel celebrated on a tree limb in the room-size outdoor enclosure where she spends most of her time, munching on nuts and fruit.

"We don't have a lot of money, but we have our priorities," said Barbara Gosselin, 67. "It's the principle of the thing."

Gosselin and her husband, Jean, 73, a retired commercial pilot, live on a forested property in Schuylkill Haven, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. In the last decade they have created a sanctuary for animals on their 77-acre plot, rescuing injured groundhogs, feeding deer and birds, and taking in the occasional stray cat. Nutkin is tame enough to be handled and is brought indoors.

The three-judge panel concluded that keeping the animal in Pennsylvania was not illegal because the Gosselins came into possession of the squirrel in a lawful manner. They had rescued the squirrel a number of years before in South Carolina, where they were living at the time and where raising wildlife is legal.

In an opinion that reads in part like a Potter tale, Justice Joseph A. Hudock described Nutkin's youth in South Carolina with "plenty of nuts to eat and trees to climb."

The "dark clouds began to gather," Hudock wrote, in November 2002, when a Game Commission officer was called by the Gosselins to investigate illegal hunting on their property, saw the squirrel, and issued the couple a citation.

Hudock went on to suggest that Nutkin, if confiscated by the commission, might well have ended up as "squirrel stew."

"That's just flat wrong," said commission spokesman Jerry Feaser, adding the Gosselins were told they could pay a $155 fine and "take the squirrel to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator."

But the Gosselins were appalled by the conditions at a local wildlife refuge, so they decided to take to case to court.

Barbara Gosselin accused the Game Commission of being more interested in a squirrel than going after someone who she said was illegally hunting on their property.

The commission does not have the authority to prosecute trespassing, Feaser said. He said that the Game Commission officer helped gather evidence and called the state police to investigate the trespassing complaint but that he could not ignore the presence of the squirrel.

"It's like a police officer going on a domestic violence call," Feaser said. "Do you ignore the drug paraphernalia in the house?"

As the case wound its way through the courts, the Gosselins said they lived in fear the Game Commission would issue a warrant and seize their pet.

"We found a safe house for her for about a year in another township," Gosselin said.

While the retired couple spent thousands of dollars on their case, Feaser said it's impossible to determine the amount the state spent.

Critics say the case illustrates a wider problem: that the Game Commission has failed to adequately respond to citizens' complaints about illegal hunting.

"It's absurd that the Game Commission would spend years and use their legal resources to fight this case, when we have such a problem of illegal hunting and poaching," said Barbara Riebman, an officer with the Mobilization for Animals-Pa. Inc., a nonprofit group based in Bryn Mawr.

But Feaser said that last year the commission cited more than 8,000 people for hunting illegally. Feaser said the commission staff is reviewing the Superior Court opinion to see whether it wants to appeal the decision.

For now, Nutkin, who experts say could live another 10 years, is spending her days lounging on tree limbs, snacking on apples, and eagerly awaiting her nightly belly rubs.

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