A New Jersey woman who took in two abandoned baby squirrels said she saw the animals taken away and was slapped with a fine after wildlife authorities saw images of the critters that she had posted online.
Maria Vaccarella and her husband were surprised to find in July an injured squirrel they had come upon in a neighbor’s yard had given birth to two healthy babies and left the pair to fend for themselves.
“We left the babies out for 24 hours. No mom (came back) so I decided to take them in,” she said.
Vaccarella treated the pair— whom she named Lola and George— like her pets as she cared for them.
“I read up on them… I started feeding them puppy milk with whipping cream for three months and started introducing other foods,” she said, telling CBS New York that she fed them every two hours to build up their strength.
Vaccarella posted photos of the siblings on social media to the delight of her friends, who expressed how happy they were to see the squirrels thriving.
“How sweet is that!” one person commented on a photo.
“You did a beautiful thing… saving those little babies!” another person wrote.
But those pictures attracted the attention of state wildlife officers, who visited Vaccarella on October 31.
“I was proud to tell them the story (of) how I saved them,” Vaccarella said.
“I even asked if they would like to come in and see them… If I had known it was illegal to have them I would have never let them (the squirrels) in my home,” she said, noting that she reached out to a rehabilitation specialist who had been unable to immediately take the pair.
Vaccarella told CBS New York she was happy to give the squirrels to professionals and thought that was the end of it, but was surprised to receive a summons in the mail for what she had done.
She pleaded not guilty to possessing captive game animals and said she faces a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months’ jail time, she wrote in an online petition to have the charges dropped and to find out where the squirrels were taken.
“All I did was help these babies,” she wrote on the petition.
Bob Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Division of Fish and Wildlife, told INSIDE EDITION that the civil penalty carries a fine of $100 to $500, but no jail time as it is not a criminal penalty.
“We understand there are many people who take in wildlife and have the best intentions, as clear was the case with Mrs. Vaccarella… However, domesticating any wildlife for an extended period of time, which was the case here, also puts these animals at great risk of being unable to survive in the natural habitat, where they belong,” he told INSIDE EDITION.
After the case was referred to the Division of Fish & Wildlife by a New Jersey licensed wildlife rehabilitator who saw it on Facebook, the department was obligated to follow through with an official notice of violation of law. If they had not acted, they stood to be legally challenged by the licensed wildlife rehabilitators, or anyone else, who reports an infraction.
He said this is not a case the department is “focusing any energy on.”
Vaccarella is due back in court on January 27.