Local Animal Rescue Gets Squirrelly

Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Guru. Squirrel Whisperer. Jill Horstmann, founder of the St. Pete-based animal rescue Squirrelly AF, goes by many nicknames. But to Porter, the blind opossum cuddled in his carrier under the table where we sit at the local kava bar she manages, she is simply Mom. 

Over the last six years, Horstmann has built up her nonprofit – going from that animal-loving friend you call when you discover abandoned squirrel babies to a full-scale rescue, rehabilitation, and release operation that serves squirrels, opossums, ducks, and the occasional raccoon. Her forte is special-needs cases like Porter, who was discovered in a swimming pool in Gulfport, eyes and brain damaged from the chlorine and whatever trauma may have led him into the pool in the first place. While most of her charges are destined for release back into the wild – always the rehabber’s primary goal – Porter would not be able to survive on his own. So Horstmann is training him up as an ambassador animal, one she can take to events to help educate and engage the public in the cause of protecting local wildlife. 

Porter the Opossum is an ambassador animal for a local nonprofit squirrel rescue, Squirrelly AF

For this life-long animal lover, the journey toward wildlife rehabber began 25 years ago, when she found a baby squirrel in distress in the flooded front yard of her Shore Acres home. Though she seemed to be alive, the tiny creature was not breathing. Desperate to help, Horstmann gently compressed her chest – call it squirrel CPR – until the water trapped there came out. Amazingly, the little critter, whom she would later name Tree, began to revive. Horstmann kept Tree warm, fed, and sheltered for weeks, until she was old enough to be released. Tree became Horstman’s first rehab case.

“Of course,” she laughs, “I later figured out I was doing a lot of it wrong. I’ve learned so much since then.”

That’s an understatement. To become licensed, wildlife rehabilitators must devote hundreds of hours to training with veterinarians or rehabbers, and often undergo rigorous testing. They need to learn the complex wildlife regulations that govern each species and open their facilities to inspection by their state wildlife authorities. They must also cultivate a saint-like patience, bending their schedules to the needs of their furry, feathered, or scaly charges, who may need months of care before they are releasable. 

Squirrelly AF has expanded rescue operations to include all manner of small wildlife.

The need for a squirrel-focused rehabilitation center became apparent in 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Horstmann found herself fielding friends’ calls about squirrels blown out of their nests by the storm’s powerful winds. Eight squirrelly orphans – with eight twitchy noses and sixteen big brown eyes – ended up in her care. 

Baby squirrels need constant attention. Horstmann placed her charges in an incubator, returning every few hours to offer syringe feeding. After a few weeks, the younglings graduated to what Horstmann calls a “big boy” cage, with a solid food diet and at least one roommate – it’s important to keep the young squirrels in social groups, which help them become less dependent on human caregivers. Then it’s time for the “teen” cage, a freestanding enclosure with nesting boxes and swinging branches that help the furry youths develop those signature acrobatic moves.

“It’s squirrel college,” Horstmann quips.

Over the last six years, Horstmann has built up her nonprofit to a full-scale rescue, rehabilitation, and release operation.

Then one day, when the time is right, she simply leaves the door open. Sometimes it takes a few days, but the kiddos always find their way back to the wild. Those eight Irma babies were just a few of the many squirrels – and later possums and raccoons – who found a second chance at life through Horstmann’s devoted care. 

A shuffling, snuffling sound from the carrier indicates it’s time to take Porter out for a potty break. Horstmann removes the towel draped over the case and reaches carefully inside. Out comes a discombobulated, rabbit-sized gray bundle, wearing a tiny teal harness. His delicate pink nose, a flurry of whiskers, and soulful black eyes give Porter a sweet, cartoonish appearance. But a closer look – maybe not too close – reveals formidable tree-scaling equipment (claws, that is) on each foot and a set of fifty fierce teeth that a dragon might envy. 

Unless you’re nose to snout with an ambassador possum (or encountering one of his wild cousins while taking out your garbage at night) it can be pretty easy to overlook urban wildlife. For most of us, experiences of city critters tend to fall into the “aww!” category (watching silly squirrel antics in your local park) or the “ick!” category (discovering bats have taken up residence in your attic), with little nuance in between. But these disparate perspectives hide a fascinating history of coevolution that has shaped our relationship with our nonhuman neighbors as they’ve adapted to – and sometimes transformed – the spaces we’ve created.

Horstmann with rescued raccoon babies.

Take squirrels, for instance. While they’re a common sight in today’s urban parks and yards, and are native to most parts of North America, these arboreal acrobats had virtually disappeared from American cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. As trees fell to make way for streets and cityscapes, the tree-dependent mammals couldn’t stay. But in the next few decades, when social reformers began pushing for more parks and recreational facilities for urban dwellers, planting trees became a common practice. And so did introducing “rustic” animals, including squirrels. Such was the case for four fluff-tails introduced to St. Petersburg’s newly formed Sunshine Park (now Coffee Pot Park) in 1915 – “a very acceptable addition,” noted the St. Petersburg Times“to the other attractions of the park.” 

Of course you can have too much of a good thing. Squirrels, as we know, have succeeded wonderfully in the new urban “woodlands” we’ve created – to the point that some folks consider them pests. Horstmann couldn’t disagree more. 

Squirrelly AF features multiple habitats for rehabbing wildlife.

“Squirrels are where trees come from!” she protests, referring to their well-known habit of burying caches of nuts for later use (a behavior known as “scatter hoarding.”) “They’re also incredibly smart, and they don’t carry disease.” Where some see a nuisance, she sees a scrappy survivor, daily overcoming a world of human-imposed obstacles. 

As firsthand witnesses to the impact our built environment has on nonhuman animals, that’s a perspective many rehabbers share. Horstmann has seen critters suffering with everything from vehicle strikes, to dog or cat attacks, to rat poisons that missed their mark, to nests knocked down by careless tree trimmers. 

“There’s a lot of loss in this field,” Horstman reflects. “A lot of animals don’t make it.”

But then there are those that do. Porter is attracting coos of enthusiasm and more than a few questions as he shuffles along on his walk, twitching his sensitive nose. This ambassador animal thing might just be working on me. From wiggly whiskers to scaly tail, I’m definitely falling for Porter. 

Humor goes a long way for small animal rescues, where loss is a tough part of the job.

Like any good wildlife advocate, Horstmann leaves me with a couple of basic guidelines: If you find baby squirrels, take them inside to protect them from predators and keep them warm. Don’t try to give them food or water (it takes some training to do that right). Do try to attract their mother; try playing baby squirrel cries from YouTube on your phone. Call and check in with a local rehabber – you can find a list on squirrellyaf.org. 

As I watch Porter making new friends, I marvel not only at the new life he’s found, but at the amazing human who has helped him find it. It can be tough to be a wild critter, just as it can be tough to be a wildlife rehabber. You’ve got to be a little squirrelly to survive. 

Learn more about Squirrelly AF online here. Keep up with their rescues and rehabs on Facebook or Instagram. All photos courtesy of Squirrelly AF.