St. Pete’s Squirrely AF: Rescuing Tree Dwellers
I had spent an hour talking with Jill Horstmann, the owner and sole employee of Squirrelly AF rescue, before she revealed a wriggling little baby squirrel sleeping in her t-shirt.
“She’s a big whiner; she really misses a mom,” Horstmann explained. “Every time I take her out she screams and cries.”
Mom was probably taken away by a tree cutter, Horstmann said. Tree trimmers often move animals, kill adult squirrels and cut down nests, she says.
Crying babies, squirrels with head trauma, elderly squirrels with cataracts — any kind of stray tree rodents, really — matter to Squirrelly AF, a St. Petersburg-based rescue.
“People should take squirrels to rehab when they find them,” Horstmann said.
On site, she rehabilitates the animals, teaches them “to make squirrels” by themselves, and releases them nearby where they nest and lead a normal life. Often the squirrels return during the day, of their own free will, to his garden, where they come knowing that the treats are always close at hand.
Horstmann’s rescue is at 2727 24th Ave. N. It’s his garden.
She led his rescue, rehabilitation and release for five years as sub-licensed under Wright Ranch Rescue, Inc. in Lutz. In 2021, she applied for 501(c)(3) charitable status.
For Horstmann, that means she can easily accept donations, which she needs to keep the nonprofit and the squirrels healthy.
It also means that she has been making bushy-tailed creatures all her life.
“They’re just cute patooties…they’re so smart,” Horstmann said. “My biggest fear is that if something happened to me, who would take care of the squirrels?”
Wright Ranch takes care of all wildlife and is where rehabilitation experts have taught him everything from bats to raccoons. When Squirrelly AF takes in a squirrel with medical issues, Animal Medical Hospital in St. Petersburg [2540 30th Ave. N.] provides appropriate veterinary care and medication.
At the moment, Horstmann only works with squirrels, and that’s how she likes it.
Underworld of squirrels
To say that squirrels consume Horstmann’s entire life is perhaps an understatement.
The St. Pete resident first rescued a squirrel at Shore Acres 25 years ago. She found two baby squirrels lying in standing water from a recent flood. One was already dead; the other she lifted and finally released.
“Back then, there was no internet; there was AOL,” Horstmann said with a laugh. “I had to understand everything. Fortunately, he succeeded and was released.
She paused until Hurricane Irma moved tons of baby squirrels and Horstmann scrolled through Facebook, heartbroken by photos of orphaned animals. Someone remembered his rehab victory over two decades ago and messaged him, asking for help with a furry storm survivor.
It was then that she learned the ins and outs of rehabilitating Wright Ranch.
Today, Horstmann sleeps in his mother-in-law’s makeshift suite, just steps from dependent baby squirrels who need to drink milk every four hours.
The Rescue Center was once a studio for friends and music; now it houses cages of healing squirrels, waiting for the day when they can return to the wild.
Peanuts for charity
Rehabilitating squirrels doesn’t come cheap.
“People are donating, which is amazing, but it fluctuates so much,” Horstmann said. “The medical bills are unreal, so there’s no way I can keep a cushion for my rescue…and the animals can’t live without it.”
Four pacifiers are $15; a bag of nutritious sunflower seeds, $80; and fruit and vegetable prices continue to rise. These necessary lifelines last about “two seconds” in a squirrel sanctuary.
Before diving deep into the world of squirrels, Horstmann worked as a bar manager and bartender at Pinellas. She always raised her squirrels, and often brought babies and milk in her t-shirt cushion. When COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry, she jumped at the chance and started working with her squirrels full-time, and now, a full-time job in addition to her full-time life as a rehabilitation is impossible.
She still carries the no-nonsense attitude of a bar manager when dealing with rowdy patrons, except now they’re rowdy squirrels, drunk on nutty thrills.
“They are amazing animals. Once someone who is anti-squirrel sees them up close, they change their mind,” Horstmann said. “The most important thing I want to push is that if you find an injured or displaced animal, please call a rehabber.”
And yes, Squirrelly AF is short for Squirrelly “As F**k”.
If you find an endangered squirrel, contact Squirrelly AF at 727-336-7228, but if you can, text a photo and information before calling.
Find more squirrels at squirrellyaf.org
You want to know more ?
Meet Horstmann and learn about his squirrel run at Gulfport’s Get Rescued. She will educate the public about squirrels and the importance of wildlife and rehabilitation. I also hope that she will accept the donations she so badly needs.
Gulfport is rescued February 26, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. gulfportsgetrescued.com
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