If government is yet perceived as the benevolent caregiver of the sick and vulnerable, this tale shall be the elixir of that poison.
The untimely and pointless death of Peter Hawthorne bodes nothing well of the present — nor anything promising of the future — but instead limns an accurately damning portrait of the abandonment of society’s cooperative spirit, an evisceration of the spirit of law, and an incalculable cruelty which is now levied by corpulent bureaucracy apparently resolute to consume itself — and everything else along with it.
Peter Hawthorne — gifted that name by the compassionate heroes responsible for first saving his life — was a teeny and sickly eastern gray squirrel near the brink of death, discovered on a sidewalk in Wedgwood by the daughter of Seattle Assistant City Attorney Kent Meyer. When the tiny animal hadn’t moved upon her return trip, she scooped up the feeble squirrel and brought it home.
Her father contacted his boss, City Attorney Pete Holmes — whose since-retired office spokeswoman, Kimberly Mills, described him in an article on the topic as a “known squirrel rescuer, who now does penance for shooting at squirrels for target practice while he was growing up on a Virginia farm” — for some informed assistance.
Neither Meyer nor Holmes, however, could carve enough time from their schedules to provide the full-time care crucial to the squirrel’s recovery — so they enlisted the help of friend, father of two young children, and avowed animal-lover, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department.
Enamored, Whitcomb and his family named their new companion Peter Hawthorne. Reports the Seattle Times,
“From day one he tweeted about Hawthorne, sharing pictures and videos: drinking formula, exploring his cage, having his first walnut, enjoying a slice of Honeycrisp apple, peeking into a paper-towel tube, playing in a dollhouse, climbing a leg, sitting on a shoulder and giving squirrel kisses.
“There are several pictures of Whitcomb and Hawthorne, accompanied by the hashtag ‘friends,’ and many videos of the police officer tenderly petting the little rodent.”
Hawthorne’s first walnut. pic.twitter.com/tRI8bAOBPi
— Sean P. Whitcomb (@SeanPWhitcomb) December 10, 2017
— Sean P. Whitcomb (@SeanPWhitcomb) September 6, 2017
Hawthorne’s unlikely story spread like wildfire online and a local radio reporter, who already follows Whitcomb’s account, picked it up. For a brief time, this personal-touch, good cop, conscionable attorney, beat-the-odds, feel-good, animal rescue saga provided heartwarming respite — a reminder not all heroes wear capes.
— KIRO Radio 97.3 FM🎙 (@KIRORadio) January 2, 2018
Unfortunately for Peter Hawthorne and everyone who loved him, heroes aren’t always victorious, even when actions match their compassionate intentions. Like most hero stories, this one also has villains.
An unidentified alarmist, observing Peter Hawthorne’s explosion in popularity, took it upon themselves to alert authorities to the prohibited presence of a wild animal in a residence — verboten under a revised code in the State of Washington — obligating the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to intervene, and they contacted Whitcomb’s supervisors over the violation of law.
“On Jan. 3,” the Times continues, “Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Kim Chandler issued Whitcomb a written warning for violating Revised Code of Washington 77.15.800. Whitcomb was told he had less than two weeks to either find a licensed wildlife-rehabilitation center that would take Hawthorne — or release the animal into the wild.
“Six days later, Chandler told Whitcomb he had reached out to a wildlife-rehab center, but it declined to take Hawthorne. He also didn’t have much hope any other facility would be interested, or that Hawthorne could survive on his own.”
In short, because his rescue involved intensive human contact — thus, making Hawthorne dependent upon their care and incapable of defending himself against predators in the wild — a shelter or licensed rehabilitation facility’s ostensive only option would be to euthanize.
For an officer of law and father of two young children, Hawthorne had become a liability. Arguably, given the jovial squirrel’s wildfire public celebrity, solely due to the obsequiousness of a single person calling out the transgression for reasons as-yet and likely forever unknown.
“I begged and pleaded for a few more weeks,” the law enforcement officer lamented to the Times, “but was essentially told I needed to release him even though it was the middle of winter.”
Without recourse, Whitcomb reluctantly placed Hawthorne’s cage outside, on the family’s back deck — and, for a brief time, it seemed the animal might stand a chance against the harsh elements and potential predators.
“He scampered up trees, harvested nuts and even played a little with a Douglas squirrel and fellow eastern gray. He hid food in his cage and also once brought Whitcomb a broken plastic toy, as if it were a present. But a few days later, Whitcomb noticed an abscess on his leg and took him to a veterinarian for treatment,” reports the Times.
That injury, coupled with the unforgivingly cold and wet elements, sounded Peter Hawthorne’s unjust and preventable death knell — the tiny squirrel succumbed — and the animal-loving cop found his tiny companion cold and dead in the cage which had once protected him, on the morning of January 29.
“Hawthorne,” Whitcomb wrote to Twitter that day, “what squirrel was as loved as you? On your first day in the forest, you took a break from exploring & nestled inside my jacket. I’ll never forget that. You always found your way back home. In the end, modern veterinary medicine wasn’t enough. Rest in peace, little one.”
Hawthorne, what squirrel was as loved as you? On your first day in the forest, you took a break from exploring & nestled inside my jacket. I’ll never forget that. You always found your way back home. In the end, modern veterinary medicine wasn’t enough. Rest in peace, little one. pic.twitter.com/tdrn78WwyE
— Sean P. Whitcomb (@SeanPWhitcomb) January 30, 2018
Nuts and ferns lined Peter Hawthornel’s grave on Whitcomb’s Issaquah property.
“Today,” Mills wrote in an acerbic email to Fish and Wildlife, shortly after Hawthorne’s absurd death, “I learned that the baby squirrel some of us rescued and rehabilitated last fall died overnight in the rain and cold — a fate that [Department of Fish and Wildlife] dictated.
“The end to Peter Hawthorne’s story came because one of your employees forced his temporary caregiver (my City colleague) to release him into the wilds in the dead of winter instead of allowing the squirrel to grow stronger and be released in the spring. His caregiver noticed an abscess on his leg Friday and took him to the vet, who medicated him. But overnight — outside as dictated by WDFW — he died.
“Honestly, don’t your employees have better things to do with taxpayers’ money?”
Au revoir, mon petit écureuil. pic.twitter.com/Dn4CqOkh0i
— Sean P. Whitcomb (@SeanPWhitcomb) January 13, 2018
Answer presenting itself in the question, aside, Washington’s Fish and Wildlife shirked blame for death of the rehabilitated and beloved squirrel — and although its part in killing the very subject of its putative protection seems clear — sycophantic adherence to the letter of the law on the part of the If You See Something, Say Something propaganda campaign ultimately proved irrelevant minutia can coldly determine fate.
When the law — words on paper — and its agents of force no longer flex to accommodate whatever exceptions present themselves as necessary to align with morals, ethics, compassion, and nuance, authoritarianism has taken root.
Perhaps this ignominious tale could be relegated to the annals of history without another thought: Peter Hawthorne was, after all, one squirrel — a lone body joining an interminable list of other lone bodies to whom mercy wasn’t a consideration for coercive, bellicose government.
But that dismissive, permissive mindset doesn’t allow such lists to ever gather dust.
Featured image: Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, Seattle Police Department spokesman, tweeted this photo on Sept. 18, on day 27 of Hawthorne the squirrel’s rehabilitation. (Courtesy of Sean Whitcomb)