A man who fled Venezuela with his pet squirrel, travelling thousands of miles together and living in a tent in Mexico for months, is now facing having to say goodbye as it is unlikely the animal will be allowed across the US border.
Yeison, 23, says he will be “heartsick” if he has to leave Niko behind. The little squirrel, who has a black stripe and flecks of white hair, made the treacherous journey nesting in a knitted cap inside his guardian’s backpack.
There was no question of leaving his pet in Venezuela, Yeison says, adding that starting a new life without him “would practically be like starting with nothing”.
Yeison, who did not want to give his last name because he is worried about his family’s safety in Venezuela, is among millions who have fled the South American country because of political and economic upheaval in recent years.
Migrants making the dangerous trip north, a journey of around 3,000 miles, are faced with difficult choices over what to take with them, usually only the belongings they can carry on their back, and what to leave behind.
Yeison made the trip through the perilous jungle known as the Darien Gap, where he said he found the body of a man under some blankets. Niko was concealed in his backpack when they boarded buses and crossed through checkpoint inspections in Mexico.
When a bus driver did discover the squirrel on one occasion, Yeison sold his phone for $35 (about £28.50) to pay to keep him on board.
‘There’s a connection between them’
After making the journey to Mexico, Yeison has spent six months waiting to make an asylum case in the US. The pair live together in a tent in Matamoros, across from the Texas border city of Brownsville, along with hundreds of others in the same position. Yeison has made money cutting hair by his tent, and often falls asleep sharing the same pillow with Niko at night.
But now, they might be forced to part ways.
Yeison has secured an appointment to present himself at the border to seek entry to the US and request asylum. The chances of Niko being allowed to cross too are slim, but volunteers at the encampment are not giving up.
Gladys Canas, the director of non-governmental organisation Ayudandoles A Triunfar (which roughly translates as “helping to succeed”), says she has encountered other migrants with pets – cats, dogs, and even a rabbit once. But Niko is the first squirrel she has seen.
She helped put Yeison in touch with a vet to document Niko’s vaccinations to provide to border agents.
“There’s a connection between him and the squirrel, so much that he preferred to bring it with him than leave the squirrel behind with family in Venezuela and face the dangers that come with the migrant journey,” she says. “They gave each other courage.”
‘I hope he never forgets my face’
Yeison found Niko as a newborn after nearly stepping on him one day. He took him home and family members fed him yoghurt, he says – although the picky squirrel preferred nibbling on pine trees and later lived on tomatoes and mangos, even in times when food was hard to come by.
Aware of what might happen at the US border, Yeison says he initially sought work in Colombia. However, he returned to find a loose pine splinter lodged in Niko’s eye and decided to move on to try to get to America.
He has prepared for a separation, but is remaining hopeful.
“I don’t want for him to be separated from me, because I know that we’d get heartsick,” he says. “I’m sure of that.
“And if he doesn’t get sick, I hope he gets to be happy. And that he never forgets my face.”