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I have always been an introvert, and the best way for me to make friends was to meet them on the Internet. One of the friends Iíve met this way was a lady named Tanya, who I met in a chat room. We always talked about our pet squirrels and other animals. At the time we met, I only had Scalisti, my male flying squirrel.

In the summer of 1998, my dad and I went on a trip to Massachusetts to visit relatives. While I was there, my friend Tanya emailed me telling me that she had money for me to buy a Richardsonís ground squirrel from a pet store in Florida, the state I live in. Iíve known about this species from my individual studies on squirrels, but at the time I didnít know that particular species could be kept as pets. After my visit to Massachusetts, my dad and I have agreed to meet Tanya in Pennsylvania before going all the way back to Florida. She gave me the money, and I thanked her very much. I also got a chance to meet her pet gray squirrel.

A week after the trip, my dad took me to the pet store that had my Richardson ground squirrel, who I had named Rikki. Her name is short for the type of ground squirrel that she is. I had already purchased the cage beforehand. Iíve also had food, water, and a small animal hammock for her. Rikki resembled a miniature groundhog. Her species is closer related to groundhogs than to typical tree squirrels, but they are all in the same family.

When I brought her home from the pet store, Rikki was understandably tense from the trip. She did not trust me for the first few weeks. A shrill squeaking sound would let me know that she was nervous. Her tenacity was quite obvious when her hammock was torn to shreds and when she constantly chewed on the bars of her cage. She was also quite aggressive, wanting to bite me whenever I tried to pet her. But this behavior would soon change.

After a while of Rikki getting used to my presence, she was beginning to trust me, even though I accidentally pulled off part of her tail. I felt very guilty when this happened. She never bit me hard, and the only time she would touch me with her teeth was to groom me. Rikki was very cuddly and would take naps with me. My mom would often give her animal crackers as a treat. She called Rikki a "Hershey kiss" because of the way she sits.

A year had gone by since Iíve gotten Rikki and it was time for me to transfer to a university. I had just finished two years of community college. I had two choices: Stetson University, which was close to home where I would still live with my squirrels, or the University of Florida which was 100 miles away and I could only keep my squirrels somewhere else and visit them everyday because the dorms did not allow pets. I had chosen the latter because it was more in tuned to my field of interest, zoology, which became my major. I have been calling animal kennels in the area to see if they would board my animals and I found someone who worked at one who happened to have a thirteen-lined ground squirrel named Nina. Their place was an apartment where I rode my bicycle everyday to feed and spend time with Rikki and Scalisti.

The conditions were fine enough for me to buy another flying squirrel, so I did. I liked Rikki so much that I named this newcomer Rakita. There were close to a dozen cats living in the apartment, but they posed no threat to my caged pets. However, I did have some health concerns about those cats because of their smelly litter boxes.

Every day I would call the residents of the apartment where I kept my squirrels to make sure I can go there. Days that they were not available were quite hard on me. I would miss my pets on those days, especially Rikki. I usually came there on evenings, and to visit them was my favorite part of each day. During breaks, such as winter, spring, or summer break, I would go back home with my squirrels.

Time went by rather quickly while I was a student at the University of Florida. I have grown accustomed to travelling to the apartment every day on my bike to spend time with my animals. They all seemed quite healthy while they were there, until one day in the fall of 2000, when I found a strange lump in the skin on Rikkiís back. I did not think it was anything serious because it was rather small. After a few weeks it started growing, so naturally I was concerned. During winter break when I was back home, the lump was bleeding, so I took Rikki to a veterinarian to have her examined. She was given antibiotics, which did not help much. When it was time to go back to school, I had finally decided to get the lump removed. A vet working near the university, Dr. Greene, did the surgery. The surgical scar healed rapidly.

But it was not over. A new lump had grown on Rikkiís shoulder blade, this time under the skin instead of inside. I not only took her to the vet to get it removed, but also to have it examined. Several people from my squirrel email lists helped out with the cost of this surgery. According to the examination, the lump was a malignant tumor known as carcinoma. Rikki had cancer.

I have spoken to some friends on the squirrel e-mail lists, and one of them recommended I use IP-6, which is a medicine that is supposed to slow down cancer. I found some on the Internet, and ordered it right away. It was a bottle that had capsules of the medicine, which I emptied and put into a salt shaker. I also used Echinacea to help boost Rikkiís immune system. I put it on her food and in her water every day. It seemed to be working for a while, but another lump grew back where the first one was. I also found a large one on her chest under her skin. I knew that there would be no use giving her another surgery.

The spring 2001 semester at the University of Florida was almost over, so I was ready to move out of the dorms. I found an apartment that my squirrels and I could stay in during the summer. Before I moved out of the dorms, I had my squirrels moved to the other apartment where I would live while taking my summer Genetics course. I visited them at this place for a couple of weeks until I moved there for the summer. I was glad I could finally live with my pets without having to ride a long way every day to visit them. Because of this convenience, I was able to buy a prairie dog. Shortly after, I received an email from a woman who had another prairie dog she didnít have time to take care of, so she came over to give him to me. The two prairie dogs, Mancha and Bailey, are now bonded to each other and live in the same cage.

Unfortunately, Rikkiís condition was deteriorating. She did not eat much, and the lump on her chest grew so large it was hindering movement on her right forepaw. She would squeal whenever I tried picking her up. It was early June when I have decided to give her medication to ease her pain. That helped for a few weeks, but she would still squeal whenever I tried to move her. She was obviously in so much pain that I knew it was time to make a difficult decision. I made an appointment on June 30, 2001 to have Rikki put to sleep.

My parents came over and brought Rikki and I to Dr. Greeneís office on that melancholy day. After he was done, he came out of the office and told us that Rikkiís euthanasia was peaceful. I petted her and said goodbye for the last time, and told her how special she was. My parents brought her to their house in a small box and buried her in their yard. Flowers marked her gravesite.

Neither of the two new prairie dogs will serve as a replacement for Rikki, but I consider them to be fillers of the void that she left behind. I have informed all of my fellow squirrel-loving friends I met online, including Tanya, about my decision and they all agreed I did the right thing. They all loved Rikki from the start. At least three trees have been planted in her memory, and one lady promised to name the next squirrel she rehabs "Rikki."