ST. PETERSBURG — Jill Horstmann had squirrels in her bra. And they wouldn’t stay still.
One squirmed and wriggled so much that she had to pull it out. Its bushy brown tail peeked through her fingers as she cradled it. The squirrel was restless, hungry, thirsty — and probably confused. But only one of those could be addressed while sitting in a booth at local kava bar Mad Hatters.
Horstmann dunked a straw in a shot glass full of water, plugged one end and guided it to the squirrel’s mouth.
At first, it seemed surprised, maybe even scared. Then it relaxed in her grip and wrapped a tiny hand around the straw to catch more droplets. For the first time that afternoon, it stopped moving.
It was nothing Horstmann hadn’t done before. The 49-year-old has been nursing squirrels for years at her home in St. Petersburg.
Her backyard is the headquarters for Squirrelly AF, a wildlife rescue and nonprofit. But if you walked in expecting to see just squirrels, you would be shocked. Ducks run around honking relentlessly, and large cages with possums, raccoons and chickens sit along the fence. Food bowls and toys lie everywhere on the mulch-covered ground — all evidence of animals past and present.
Horstmann started the rescue in late 2017, just after Hurricane Irma hit Florida. People from the community had heard about her successfully rescuing a few squirrels years prior and brought her ones they’d found who needed help.
After an initial group of eight, Horstmann thought she’d be done, but the squirrels kept coming.
Social media, namely a Facebook page with over 13,000 followers, boosted her rescue efforts. On any given day, you might catch the self-described “squirrel guru” in merchandise she’s created for the rescue, or driving around in a car with “#SQUIRRELYAF” on the bumper.
Horstmann is not the first or the only person in the area to help feed and house orphaned or injured animals. There’s Wright Ranch Rescue in Mount Dora near Orlando and Owl’s Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife in Tampa, to name a few. But being a squirrel-specialized rescuer is kind of rare, she said. It was only in the past year that Squirrelly AF started accepting other animals.
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Don’t ask exactly how many animals are there in total, because that number changes all the time. On Aug. 3, it was in the 50s. A week later, it reached the 60s.
Chalk it up to it being baby squirrel season, Horstmann said.
She doesn’t take newborns — called “pinkies” because they have no fur on their flesh-colored bodies — but she will take squirrels that are a few weeks old. When they arrive, they’re placed in an incubator and fed on a three- to four-hour cycle. After some time, they are weaned off squirrel formula (yes, that’s a thing!), given solid food and placed in cages.
Then, when they’re about ready for release, it’s off to the pre-release cages. These are slightly bigger than the previous ones, and during this stage, they’re no longer held or petted. A coddled squirrel won’t survive on the outside, Horstmann said.
Most are released close to her house, so they pop by every day to say hello and grab a snack for the road. They all look alike, so it’s hard to remember who’s who after they’ve left her property, but she always knows if they’re her kids. Really, it’s all in how they act toward her. If they’re not skittish, chances are high that she once cradled them.
Rescuing isn’t easy. Horstmann said there’s constant loss.
“You can raise an animal for months, years and then it just passes,” she said.
With no one to share grief with, she shoulders it on her own.
Squirrels who have died are buried in her backyard. Some are marked with headstones and fruit trees — these are ones she had for a long time, like Fig, Bonsai and Bamboo.
The ashes of Juice, a squirrel who died last December, are stored in a necklace and two bracelets she never takes off. Juice had his back two legs amputated, so he was nearly always with Horstmann. The bond between them was stronger than she’d ever shared with an animal. Christmas, she said, will never be the same.
There are times when the rescue’s work borders on being too much. When she’s sick and can’t clean cages. Or she’s so tired from only sleeping between 3 and 8 a.m. that she forgets to eat. That’s when she feels the weight of taking care of the animals, managing a nonprofit and fielding rescue requests or questions the most.
“I don’t even have the time to care anymore. I’ll be lucky if I get a shower in every couple days. It’s a lot. I never know what day it is,” Horstmann said.
She swears there’s a reward, though: seeing happy and healthy animals grow over time. Plus, there’s the fulfillment that comes from releasing them and being a resource for the community.
People know who she is. They drop avocados and mangoes at her doorstep. They donate blankets, sheets and comforters. They give her Starbucks gift cards and send her big boxes of Cajun nuts — her favorite snack — to enjoy during the day.
And when squirrels need her, people know how to find her.
At Mad Hatters, Joe Coleman and Rachel Grabner showed up with Amazon boxes in hand.
“Hello, you got a squirrel?” Horstmann shouted from the booth.
She popped up before they gave an answer. When they found two baby squirrels without a mom in their backyard, a simple “squirrel rescue near me” search led them to Squirrelly AF.
Soon, requests for shot glasses and straws were fired to a bartender. Other patrons couldn’t help but steal a few glances at the babies.
Horstmann placed gentle kisses on the squirrels’ heads.
“You raise a squirrel once and it just changes your whole world,” she said.