In her life of leisure, Jo-Jo the flying squirrel doesn't need to fly anymore – but boy, is she cute.

For the past eight months, Shannon Unger – a Ruth Patrick Science Education Center staff member – has kept Jo-Jo as a family pet. The squirrel's life is very much eclectic, often traveling in Unger's tote, which is bright and yellow with a painting of The Beatles and their “Yellow Submarine.”

More accurately, flying squirrels, best known by that description, don't really fly.

“Jo-Jo has extra skin on the side she can stretch out,” Unger said. “Gliding from a higher branch to a lower one, usually to get food or get away from predators. It's like jumping with a parachute.”

Such squirrels are fairly common in the region. Gray squirrels, who seem to be everywhere, are diurnal, sleeping at night. The flying squirrels, half their size, are nocturnal, sleeping more during the day. By living in captivity – which isn't so captive – Jo-Jo could have a life expectancy of approximately 10 years.

Of course, squirrels are expert climbers, living in nests called dreys – often mistaken for bird nests. They can be found or heard in house attics searching for food. In their “free time,” they are party animals.

About two years ago, a woman discovered Jo-Jo soon after birth, apparently abandoned by its mother. The woman brought the squirrel to Mandy Senn and her husband, Gary, the Ruth Patrick Center director. They raised Jo-Jo before giving her to Unger as a pet.

When she comes to work, Unger brings along Jo-Jo, who seems to enjoy a large cage. Acorns are the squirrel's main diet, but she enjoys treats Unger gives her, such as oranges and pecans.

Occasionally, Unger takes Jo-Jo to libraries throughout the area to visit with children. Jo-Jo knows all about children.

“She stays mostly with me and will follow me around,” Unger said. “But my kids are 2 and 4. They think she's great, and they will grow up with Jo-Jo. I do have a cat and dog, too. The cat doesn't seem that interested, while my dog is OK with her.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.