By Burak Bir
LONDON (AA) - A British mother devoted her life to squirrels by turning her five-bedroom home with a garden into a special environment that is suitable for her autistic son's particular interest.
A Laverstoke Gardens home, in southwest London, is home to not only a family, but also many squirrels. Along with Natalia Doran and her four children, there are now 15 squirrels living in the house with two new-born squirrels.
It all started back in 2014-2015 when the 58-year-old mother decided to turn her home into a much more suitable environment for the well-being of Jonathan, her autistic son.
After she realized her son's interest in squirrels, Doran who runs a wildlife rescue unit called Urban Squirrels, took the squirrels in.
Ahead of the World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, Doran, a mother of two autistic children, told Anadolu about her family's inspiring story and explained how she changed the whole environment of the family to make the home "a special area" for her autistic son.
Urban Squirrels started nearly 9 years ago because Jonathan wanted to work with animals, said Doran. Two of her children, Jonathan, 30, and Claire, 33, are autistic.
"He's (Jonathan) very, very intelligent, very capable, but also severely autistic, is something that affects his communication massively, he can speak but his communication is very limited, his understanding of the world, etc," she said.
Doran said before squirrels, they tried for Jonathan to work first with horses and dogs but those options seemed dangerous for him as he needs supervision for his safety.
"So we decided that the only way Johnny could work but work safely was if things were set up exactly for him where things couldn't go wrong, essentially in the house," said Doran.
- Doing something for others
That is how squirrels were first welcomed in their home.
At the same time, they realized squirrels are London's only wild mammals that people kind of interact with and are also seen as sort of "semi-pet" by many people.
Later, they started rescue efforts for squirrels which brought other paper works for them, said Doran, adding they first got required licenses: "It was a little bit difficult."
She stated that Jonathan helps her a lot in dealing with the daily care of squirrels, although there are limits for him like he can't go out on his own.
Some squirrels are kept in cages in the garden, while the rest of them are in the two rooms on the top floor. And two babies who are nearly six weeks old and under special care of Doran.
"It's quite interesting," said Doran, adding while she knows how to do it, she can't physically lift things like cages of squirrels and Jonathan can physically lift things but doesn't quite know how things go together. "It works well."
She went on to say that Jonathan impresses people with his work, as despite being severely handicapped he still helps others. Doran also said that his son even joined a 10-kilometer run for fundraising.
"It was a real achievement for him. Like for somebody else to climb Mount Everest," said Doran, adding that from her experiences she believes that doing something with work-life balance is very important for an autistic person.
"...Not just entertain themselves by going to the park or the swimming pool or whatever ... there should be a work to life balance. Like for all of us, there should be a life to work balance and for an autistic person as well. And just because it is very difficult for them to work doesn't mean that they don't need that balance."
She said it is not just about pleasing himself or feeding himself. It is about doing something for others that is "great for his self-esteem."
- 'We couldn't have urban squirrels without him'
"I think psychologically it's really important to have a structured day. If he knows he has done all the feeding and cleaning then he can relax and play on his gadgets and have a good meal and it is a proper balance."
"What he does is invaluable. I mean, we couldn't have urban squirrels without him. I couldn't even begin to do all the physical work that he does," added Doran.
Telling how an interest in squirrels for the well-being of her son has become a professional focus, she said they realized that squirrels were threatened.
"We just started allowing Johnny to look after animals. That was the whole program. But then when we realize how persecuted they were..."
She later started to write letters to editors, and magazines over falsifications related to squirrels like "they are destroying the forest."
Then she became a member of the council that runs the national animal protection organization Animal Aid and a trustee for Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals.
"Now there are four organizations that I'm involved with. Urban Squirrels is the only one where I'm kind of hands on but three more that I helped to run and that is just me. And I never thought that doing something for Johnny would result in what is a virtually career for me. So it works both ways."
Also speaking to Anadolu, Jonathan said that they have 15 squirrels including two baby squirrels, adding that he feeds squirrels with nuts, fruits and vegetables
"I give the squirrels monkey nuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans ... they eat nuts, fruits, and vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, apples, grapes, and tangerine," he added.
Jonathan said he is "happy" when spending time with squirrels at home which is also full of small household ornaments or decorative objects, featuring squirrels.