When Mary Krupa was a freshman at Penn State in 2012, she began feeding the squirrels on campus. She never envisioned she’d one day be making miniature hats for one of them.
But the more she fed them, the friendlier the critters became. One squirrel in particular was comfortable enough to eat straight from Krupa’s hand.
She named the squirrel Sneezy and eventually began stroking the animal’s head. Then she got an idea to try and put a tiny doll hat on top of its head. Surprisingly, the squirrel sat there long enough for her to take the picture.
"I didn't really have any experience beforehand working with wildlife, but I gradually learned how to read the squirrels body language and their likes/dislikes," Krupa told MNN. "Eventually, we had a bond based on trust."
Sneezy is actually a "stage name" shared between two to three squirrels.
She began making other hats for Sneezy from repurposed objects or using a 3D printer using a plant-based plastic. "To be honest, I don't know if the squirrels really noticed the little hats; they're so focused on the food!" Every time she placed a hat on Sneezy’s head, she took a picture — and Krupa soon earned herself the nickname of the "Squirrel Whisperer."
"Throughout the rest of my college career, I continued my relationship with Sneezy. I learned that her nest was in a huge, hollow elm tree near the central part of campus, so almost every day, I would visit her in between classes. I’d stand under the tree and call for Sneezy, and if she wanted to interact with me, she’d come down from her nest (or out of the bushes, etc.) and sit in my lap while she had a few peanuts. The photos became gradually more elaborate as I got to know the squirrel and what she would and wouldn’t tolerate."
While Sneezy does seem comfortable wearing hats and using props, Krupa says squirrels are wild animals first and foremast and must be respected. "Sneezy was always a wild squirrel and was never forced to do anything. Everything was always on her terms."
A special bond with Sneezy
Krupa's relationship with Sneezy was not only entertaining for students on campus, but it also helped Krupa overcome social difficulties at college.
"At that time, I was becoming more open about my autism diagnosis, which I’ve had since I was a young child. Although my autism makes me very passionate about certain topics (like animals and conservation) it does mean I have some social difficulties. I didn’t really have many human friends in college, not because I was antisocial, but simply because I didn’t know how. Interacting with other people felt awkward and unnatural to me. But my interactions with Sneezy helped me grow and mature more, because it was a great conversation starter and helped me meet other people with similar interests."
Eventually Sneezy and the photos became so popular that Krupa created a Facebook page for the squirrel, and the furry critter now has more than 53,500 fans.
Krupa graduated from Penn State in 2016 and doesn't get to visit Sneezy quite as often, but she's OK with that. "Sneezy is a wild animal, and she can take care of herself just fine. I last saw her a few weeks ago, relaxing and grooming herself high up in her tree, with no intention of coming down anytime soon."
Following her passion
From spending all those years building a rapport with Sneezy, Krupa found her calling in life — working with and rehabilitating wildlife. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and a minor in Wildlife and Fisheries Services. Now, she's volunteering at Penn State's Nature Center.
"I help care for a variety of hawks, owls, and other birds of prey that are no longer able to survive in the wild. I really enjoy working with the animals and educating visitors about wildlife. My dream career would probably be at a reputable zoo or conservation group where I can use my passion for wildlife to make a difference."
Thinking of dressing up the local wildlife?
Although squirrels and other animals are cute — especially when sporting a tiny fez — the Humane Society cautions that feeding wild animals can often result in more harm than good. When animals learn that people are a food source, they often lose their natural fear of humans, which can put the animal at risk. Also, animals who depend on people for food can cause injuries or spread disease.
Krupa agrees. "It might sound hypocritical, but one of my big pet peeves is people trying to make pets out of wild animals. It’s not fair to the animal and rarely ends well for the person."
That said, it's hard to resist thumbing through more of Sneezy’s stylish looks below.
Editor's note: This article was originally written by Laura Moss in January 2013 and has been updated with new information.