Local Artist, Ranger Has A Way With Animals

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Call most women Squirrel Mama and they'd probably take offense.

Not Cathe Descheemaker.

In fact, the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park ranger and local wildlife artist takes pride in the nickname, bestowed on her by fellow employees at the bridge after she recently led their team effort to save a family of orphaned baby squirrels.

It's not the first time she's rehabilitated orphaned or otherwise distressed animals and it won't be the last, but this particular rescue was especially dramatic.

"We found three gray tree squirrels at the park last summer after a hailstorm destroyed their nest," said Descheemaker, who has a long history of working with and caring for animals. "They were about 10 days old and didn't even have their eyes open yet. The first one, which we named Calvin after Calvin Ross, the ranger who found them began nursing on fruit punch Gatorade from an eye dropper right away."

The other two, named Squealy Bob and Guava Margie, were a bigger challenge.

"The odds of surviving in nature have always been in favor of the strongest, and we lost Bobby to a bout with pneumonia after almost a week of around-the-clock feedings," Descheemaker said. "Margie, who originally refused the formula we tried to get her to take, changed her mind when she was offered guava juice."

And it was yet another fortunate turn of events that brought Calvin and Margie the rest of the way through their recovery.

"One week after Bob died, the other two discovered watermelon," Descheemaker said. "They loved sucking the sweet rind, and I believe it was the only thing that pulled them through."

That and the fact that they had each other.

"When they slept, they would curl up together for security, which I'm sure helped them survive," she said. "It has also been my experience that the odds are better when siblings have each other to compete with."

To make a long rehab short, the efforts of the staff at the bridge paid off when Descheemaker successfully released Calvin and Margie last fall near her home in Pine.

"Both squirrels have survived on their own this winter, with a little help from a once-a-day feeding from the fence posts surrounding my property," she said. "But so far I have succeeded in keeping them wild. They don't come within 25 feet of people, and are cautious of cats and dogs."

Descheemaker has a lot of experience in animal rehabilitation. She was a co-owner of the Payson Zoo, and is trained and licensed by Arizona Game and Fish as a wildlife rehabilitator.

"I've also done a lot of rehab work on white-tailed deer and javelina," she said. "You might say I've had an up-close and personal relationship with the animals who live in this part of the world."

Besides caring for animals, Descheemaker has long been recognized in the Rim country for her wildlife art, especially her hummingbird sketches. In fact, she is making a presentation on hummingbirds to the local bird club next month.

Descheemaker also accepts commissions from people who want a custom portrait done of a pet. While she's sketched or painted a large variety of pets, including dogs, cats, bunnies and birds, horses are the most common animal that people want her to immortalize on canvas.

But while Descheemaker still accepts commissions, her art has taken a back seat of late to her work at the bridge.

"I have the best job in the world," she said. "I get to hike every day, and I get to tell people about the history of the bridge and the area."

She especially enjoys the children who visit the bridge, and recently designed a junior ranger buddy program for children 6 and under that helps them identify and learn about the flora and fauna at the state park. Made up of pages to color and other activities that are both entertaining and educational, the program is designed to teach young people that everything in nature is interrelated.

"I hope it helps them in the process of getting away from television and seeing things with their own eyes," Descheemaker said. "Especially the kids who live in cities."

While Descheemaker also has presented a program on wildlife tracks and participated in a bird appreciation day at the bridge, she emphasizes the team effort that makes the park a perennial favorite among both locals and visitors.

"We are like a big family out there," she said. "Everybody cares about everybody else and as a result we work together very well."

There are two squirrels romping around Descheemaker's property who, if they could talk, would most certainly attest to that.

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