A few years ago, Jutta O'Connell found a tiny, pink-skinned baby squirrel near her house. Only a few weeks old, it had been separated from its mother.
O'Connell, 60, loves animals. She brought the creature inside, placed it in a towel-lined box and warmed it with a hair dryer. She kept it beside her bed and fed it puppy formula every few hours.
"When she opened her eyes,'' O'Connell recalled, "I was Mommy."
She named the squirrel "Lucky.''
Her husband, William, built a 3-foot cage on their back porch and filled it with branches so they could keep an eye on her. As time went on, Lucky was free to roam throughout the screened-in pool area.
"One day it was time," said O'Connell and she brought the animal outside. Lucky, a gray squirrel, tested out the grass, and finally took off — scampering through the trees and disappearing into the thick oak canopy. She didn't visit O'Connell for a day, but eventually she came back eager to munch on cauliflower and pecans, some of her favorite snacks.
And that's how their relationship remained — Lucky stopping by to visit nearly every day, crawling up her arm and sitting on her shoulder, even bringing her young to meet the family.
That is, until she disappeared.
Last Saturday O'Connell noticed some blood droplets around the back porch and began calling Lucky's name.
"Usually the squirrel comes running when I call. I knew something was wrong," said O'Connell, who heard some rustling leaves on the side of the house and found Lucky on the ground. She could not walk and her right back leg was swollen.
Somebody had shot the squirrel with a pellet gun.
Veterinarian Patrick Jones took X-rays and saw a pellet embedded in her ankle. He surgically removed the projectile and said the animal should be just fine.
"My first thought was, 'Who would shoot my squirrel?' It's just horrible what people do," said O'Connell.
She called the sheriff and tried to file a complaint, but without a witness the officer said there wasn't much they could do.
Gray squirrels are considered game animals and can be legally hunted statewide from Nov. 13 to March 6 — but only with approved weapons. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Hunting and Game Management, they can be hunted with legal firearms, crossbows, handguns, muzzleloaders and bows.
It is illegal to shoot game animals of any species with a BB or pellet gun. If the shooter had been caught, he would have been fined. All hunters over the age of 16 need a Florida hunting license.
"The laws are in place to make sure game animals are killed as quickly and humanely as possible," said Gary Morse, spokesman for the FWC. Fox squirrels and Southern flying squirrels are protected, and it is illegal to shoot them at any time.
Animal cruelty and animal abuse is determined for wild and domesticated animals alike and most often such charges involve captive animals that have been neglected, Morse explained.
"People just shoot at animals — it's unbelievable but they do it," said Linda Christian, a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She says she gets between two and four calls a month regarding animals wounded in a similar fashion to Lucky. She works with local veterinarians and then allows the animals to recuperate at 100 Acre Wood Wildlife Rehabilitation, a nonprofit center she founded. Her main interest is in allowing the animals to heal and then return to the wild, without becoming "humanized."
The two main concerns with domesticating a wild squirrel are rabies transmission and the loss of built-in fear that serves to protect a squirrel from natural predators such as cats, dogs and people, said Christian.
"And not everybody likes friendly squirrels," said Morse of the FWC, adding that sometimes they are considered a nuisance.
In an effort to alert neighbors, O'Connell wrote a letter and distributed it to 25 homes. She gave out the number of a local wildlife trapper in hopes that whoever is doing this would find a humane alternative to shooting at wildlife, if perhaps they thought of squirrels as a nuisance. She also warned them to keep an eye on their cats, dogs and children as they could be shot accidentally.
"You can do a lot of damage with a pellet gun," said O'Connell, "Lucky is so much more than just a squirrel."