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Pet Project

Can the Squirrel Lovers' Club convince the world that the little guys belong right up there with dogs and cats?

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It was in 1990 that Gregg Bassett had his first close encounter with a squirrel, when she pressed her nose against his back porch window. "I was never the same after that," he says. Squirrels began approaching cautiously when he and his wife, Kathy, took their evening walks. Bassett coaxed one squirrel to take a nut from his hand, and eventually a squirrel he named GG—short for "Gray Girl"—began taking peanuts from his mouth. (That was rather risky on his part, Bassett says, because wild squirrels are unpredictable and have sharp teeth and claws like needles.) "This squirrel got to where she treated me with total abandon," he says. "I'd come out of the house, and she'd come blasting across the lawn."

Today the couch cushions in Bassett's living room in Elmhurst harbor Brazil nuts, walnuts, and pecans, stashed there by his pet squirrel, Happy. Happy spends a lot of time in a wire cage in Bassett's TV room, but she also roams the house on occasion, scampering up furniture and Bassett's blue-jeaned legs, clinging to draperies and wall hangings.

Keeping Happy is legal thanks to a ten-dollar game-and-bird-breeder permit, which Bassett produces from his wallet. "Not every person should have a squirrel as a pet," he says. But as president and founder of the Squirrel Lovers Club, he's helped people nationwide battle various state agencies in order to keep pet squirrels or feed wild ones. In existence since August 1995, the club has issued nearly 2,000 official memberships (its 1,000 current members include a sorority in Pennsylvania), and Bassett has become something of a celebrity among squirrel lovers around the world, making media appearances, editing the club's bimonthly newsletter, "In a Nutshell," and maintaining its Web site.

"We're not an animal-rights group," Bassett says. "I won't hunt or eat squirrel, but I also won't stop hunters. I wouldn't want my steaks taken from me by someone in a cow lovers' club. But on the serious side, we will stick up for squirrel lovers and people who want to keep squirrels as pets."

In September 1994, Bassett read a newspaper article about a woman in Garden City, Kansas, who'd adopted a baby fox squirrel. "Her cat treated it as a fifth kitten," Bassett says. Mary Guy got in trouble with the law for her good deed, however. "The Kansas department of wildlife was saying she couldn't keep the squirrel as a pet," Bassett says. "But there was a loophole under Kansas law. If she bought a $13 license from the wildlife department, she could keep the squirrel until hunting season ended. That bought her some time."

Due to coverage in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and the National Enquirer, the Kansas department of wildlife was flooded with calls and letters. Many people also wrote directly to Guy about Barney, named by her son after the dinosaur.

Eventually Guy triumphed—the governor issued her a special permanent permit—and she was able to keep Barney. She turned over the letters she'd received to a local school so that students could study an example of grassroots political action, and Bassett—who'd been thinking about starting a club--asked her if he could contact the individuals who'd come to her defense. She wrote up a list from their return addresses, about 50 people in all. From that group, 26 joined the club.

Bassett and his club have received plenty of attention, from Jonathon Brandmeier and WLUP FM, the Tribune, and Tava Smiley of Wild Chicago, whom Bassett comped on the $20 membership because, as he says, "She fell in love with Happy. She must have spent 15 minutes trying to get her to take a nut." A radio station in Sydney, Australia, interviewed Bassett three times—and "they don't even have squirrels in Australia," he says. "This whole thing is an amazing experience to me."

One weekend last fall, Bassett was hunkered down with 13 other members of the club in a room at the Traveler's Inn in Olney, Illinois. They'd come to participate in the official count of white squirrels conducted annually by Olney Central College, but rain and violent thunderstorms kept the Squirrel Lovers group—mostly people from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs—inside much of the time. Fortunately Sheila Sullivan, from Sarasota, Florida, had brought her pet squirrel, Winky, who kept everyone entertained. A paraplegic, Winky sat snug in Sullivan's purse and eventually offered up dollar bills to adoring club members.

Squirrels are a cause celebre for some. The white squirrels of Olney—the result of genetic variation in eastern gray squirrels, according to Bassett—have put this downstate town on the map for squirrel lovers. The Olney Chamber of Commerce has hung white squirrel banners from light poles, and Olney police officers wear shoulder patches that feature the rodent. In 1999, Bassett contacted the publishers of Chase's Calendar of Events and paid $50 to designate the first full week in October Squirrel Awareness Week—a period that always falls within Olney's three-week squirrel study. The idea was to honor "one of the friendliest forms of wildlife," Bassett says.

For the last six years, Bassett has organized trips to Olney and Kenton, Tennessee—another haven for white squirrels. Three club members even traveled to Paris to view an elaborate squirrel motif carved into the woodwork of a mansion once owned by the finance minister to Louis XIV.

Over the years members have spread the word about the club, and sometimes Web surfers who've stumbled on the site have bought memberships as gifts for friends and family. "A lot of us just like to know other squirrel lovers, and most of us have squirrels with pet names who come to our patios or whatever," says member Dottie Kuzmicki of Oak Park. "Our furry friends depend on us. They sit and wait for us to feed them." Maybe a dozen keep squirrels as pets in their homes.

Kuzmicki has attended club field trips and ordered novelty items from its mail-order catalog, which offers squirrel feeders, humorous books, posters, bumper stickers, magnets, checkbook covers, note cards, key chains, squirrel-shaped nutcrackers, Squirrel Lovers Club T-shirts, chocolate squirrels, and a video Bassett made of GG taking peanuts from his lips (for 23 years he was an electronics technician with a manufacturer of video equipment and printers). Bassett stores most of these items (and those for Cats & Such, the mail-order pet-supply and novelty business he started after retiring) in cardboard boxes; piled on his roomy back porch, they form small canyons.

Tony Sereda of Chicago received a membership from his daughter. "She was always fascinated by my activities with the little critters," Sereda says. "I used to have three squirrel pals, and I'd teach them new things—to stand up, form a line, do an about-face. Then I'd pay them off with a peanut. She said to me once, 'Hey, dad, they listen, they're very intelligent.'"

Sereda once accompanied Bassett to Olney, but now he mostly enjoys watching squirrels entertain his granddaughter. "There's one who comes down around ten o'clock, 10:15," he says. "He comes onto the windowsill and knocks on the glass to catch the baby's attention. The baby gets a big kick out of it."

Bassett—who claims to have known more than 100 squirrels personally—insists they're brainy beasts. "Even when they're being total thieves, I admire them completely because it takes a great deal of intelligence for them to get around certain barriers." He mentions a feeding gadget in the club catalog that operates like a gum ball machine. "It's never taken one of them more than a minute to figure that thing out," he says.

Bassett knows things about squirrels other people have never even considered. Squirrels live for the thrill of the chase, for instance—a female squirrel can't ovulate without being pursued by a male. The fact that the female squirrel tries to outrun the male aids in the process of natural selection and rules out eastern gray squirrels mating with red fox squirrels, for example. Most squirrels born in fall never make it to their first birthday, and the average life span of a squirrel in the wild is one to five years. Perhaps most remarkable, squirrels' back feet swivel around at the ankles, which is what allows them to climb down trees face first. "Ever look at a cat?" asks Bassett. "They have to go down back end first because their claws only go one way, or they'll lose their grip."

Most of Bassett's squirrel friends—Blacky, Slitty, Cutie, Frisky—have resided in the trees around his home. But he's also well acquainted with a celebrity squirrel: Twiggy, who water-skis behind a remote-control boat at boat shows across the nation. Twiggy's owner is a club member and a good friend of Bassett and his wife. So when the tabloid Weekly World News published an article about a French squirrel killed in a waterskiing accident, Bassett recognized the squirrel in the photo as Twiggy right away even though the story was about a different squirrel. "It was all so fake," he says.

Besides maintaining relationships with club members and squirrels, Bassett visits local schools to educate children. Happy always comes along. "The kids see Happy, and that's it," he says. "I have their undivided attention."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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