Bernie Goetz, Squirrel Vigilante

New York’s infamous subway shooter is on an unorthodox mission to save the city’s squirrels—even if that means putting their snouts in his mouth.

Bernie Goetz, Squirrel Vigilante

Bernie Goetz is a tall, slight man with thinning gray hair. He carries a large bag of peanuts with him as he walks through the expansive Peter Cooper Village housing development in Manhattan. He clicks his tongue before throwing a handful of peanuts that clatter on the cold ground around thick-trunked trees. He is here to feed the squirrels. His passion for these animals brings him to Peter Cooper often. But lately he has had less time to visit his small furry friends. He has been too busy taking care of the family of squirrels that were recently born in his home.

Yes, this is that Bernie Goetz. In December 1984, Goetz infamously shot four young black men in a subway car after they allegedly tried to mug him. While all four survived the shooting, one of the men’s injuries left him severely brain damaged. Goetz’s image was in every major news publication and ignited fierce passions throughout New York, with some people praising him as a vigilante hero taking on the city’s out-of-control criminals, and others decrying him as a racist villain. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder for the subway shooting, and served less than a year in prison for illegally carrying an unregistered weapon.

Today, Bernie Goetz remains a controversial figure within the city — not just among those who remember him as the subway vigilante, but among New York’s wildlife rehabilitators as well. Licensed wildlife rehabbers must pass a test before being certified by the state to take in wild animals, like squirrels, and care for them in their homes under the supervision and discretion of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Under New York State law, it’s illegal to house a wild animal without being a licensed wildlife rehabber. Despite his enthusiasm and genuine adoration for squirrels, Goetz is not licensed. Along with breaking the law, he also doesn’t agree with many of the unwritten rules rehabbers follow when caring for squirrels, and a few of his methods are unorthodox to say the least.

In a small Manhattan apartment in early spring, Goetz rummaged through Pam Somers’s kitchen, looking for the ingredients to create a milk-based meal for his baby squirrels. Somers, a tall, stoop-shouldered woman with long stringy grey hair and thin dark red lips, is a fellow squirrel feeder who had invited Goetz over so she could photograph the newborn animals for her blog, The New York Squirrel, on which she chronicles her and Goetz’s relationships with the squirrels in Peter Cooper Village. In the living room, the squirrels lay on top of a heating pad in a plastic rectangular storage container, watched over by Gary Rabenko, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, who shouted advice to the people in the kitchen.

Bernie Goetz preparing to feed a baby squirrel. (Photo by Molly Socha)
Bernie Goetz preparing to feed a baby squirrel. (Photo by Molly Socha)

Goetz bounced back and forth from the refrigerator to the container of warmed milk, water, salt and sugar sitting on the counter. He directed his attention to me, and without greeting, explained that dehydration is the biggest killer of kittens and baby squirrels. Now in his mid-sixties, Goetz never seems to stop. He moved constantly between the kitchen and living room. His train of thought was tangential at best. One moment he was reciting the list of ingredients in the formula, the next he was looking up the background story for the current design of One World Trade Center.

Goetz and Somers met the mother of the baby squirrels in Peter Cooper Village and named her Red Momma. After a late cold spell in the city, when they witnessed a much larger squirrel chasing her out of the tree she normally inhabited, they decided to catch her. After a number of failed capture attempts, they came back, trapped Red Momma with a net and put her in a small pet carrier. Goetz took the squirrel to a vet, where he discovered she was pregnant with four babies. Then he took her home to care for her and eventually her babies, which look like small naked mole rats but without the long, visible front teeth.

On a wooden bench behind the marionette theater on the West Side of Central Park, I met with a licensed wildlife rehabber located in Manhattan. She’s been licensed for three years and asked not to be identified for fear of antagonizing Goetz.

“Bernie Goetz is somebody who has fantasies of how it should look like,” the rehabber said. “We tried to help him and get him educated because he was doing everything wrong.”

Goetz makes his own homemade formula rather than the advised formula used by many rehabbers, and nurses the baby squirrels out of a syringe instead of a nipple. He also feeds adult squirrels peanuts, which many rehabbers believe causes metabolic bone disease. He defends his formula and peanut feeding with reasoning like, “If it’s bad for them, then why are they eating it?” and “But they love it!”

His animal rearing is not limited to squirrels either. In an email to another rehabber, he wrote, “Let me know if you come across an infant hawk or a hawk egg. I’m interested in raising it as a vegetarian. Tapioca, hazelnut milk and raw egg worked on a baby bird previously.”

To become a rehabber in New York, one needs to pass the multiple choice test of about ninety-five questions, scoring eighty-five percent or higher. “It’s a good idea if you really seriously want to learn,” said the rehabber in Central Park. “You have to work with a mentor and network a lot.”

“I took the test; I don’t know how many years ago,” Goetz explained. He passed the test, but fought against the fact that the DEC requires rehabbers to keep records of every animal they take in, and that they have the right to randomly check in on rehabbers’ homes and revoke their lifetime licenses at will.

“They can come to your apartment any time they want,” Goetz says. “Now I say, ‘screw that.’ I just told them that I’m not going to do that and they said, ‘Well then you’re not getting the license. You’ve got the wrong attitude.’”

On an early spring afternoon, I met Pam Somers in Peter Cooper Village. She pushed along a wire cart that was filled with a large bag of peanuts. On top of the bag of peanuts sat an old avocado, which she hoped to feed to her favorite squirrels. The wind whipped around the large trees and brick buildings.

Goetz, Somers and Rabenko refer to having “relationships” with individual squirrels as if they were platonic courtships between friends. Somers remembered another visit to Peter Cooper when she insists one of her and Bernie’s favorites tugged on the back of her coat and started “speaking” to her, a conversation which, as far as I can see, is just a series of high pitched squeaks and chirps.

The next time I saw the group was back at Somers’s apartment. It had been a few weeks since Somers and Rabenko had seen “the pinkies,” and it was another chance to take more pictures of the babies’ progress. During the visit, Goetz fed the young squirrels organic strawberry milk via syringe. As a squirrel fed, every few seconds he removed the needle-less syringe from its mouth, closed his own mouth over the snout of the animal, and sucked. This is to keep the baby from inhaling liquid into its lungs while they are feeding.

“Does the mother do that?” Somers asked Goetz.

“No, the mother doesn’t do a lot of the things I do,” he responded.

Other rehabbers occasionally practice this method, according to the wild life rehabber in the park, but she adds that it’s not something they usually have to do if the babies are fed from a nipple.

Goetz believes someone has been tipping off the DEC about his squirrels. He recalls one Saturday night in February of 2013 when DEC officers, who he refers to as “squirrel Nazis” and says were wearing bulletproof vests, arrived at his door wanting to “check on the well-being of a squirrel.”

“Fortunately, squirrels are very hardy guys,” the rehabber said. “It’s almost impossible to kill them. This is why he has some success and why they don’t keel over immediately with him.”

“What’s the chance of survival for baby squirrels born into your care?” I asked her.

“Oh, 100 percent,” she answered without hesitation.

Out of the four offspring of Red Momma the squirrel, only one managed to survive.