Cam­pus crit­ters are nuts for Penn State’s ‘Squir­rel Girl’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PEOPLE - By JAMES PHEBY and NI­CO­LAS PRATVIEL in State Col­lege, Penn­syl­va­nia As­so­ci­ated Press

Penn State stu­dents know her as the Squir­rel Whis­perer, or even Squir­rel Girl. Which suits Mary Krupa just fine.

Four years ago, the 22-year-old se­nior be­came an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion for plac­ing tiny hats on the ubiq­ui­tous ro­dents that live near Penn State’s land­mark Old Main build­ing, and coax­ing them to hold minia­ture props.

Though her Penn State ca­reer is wind­ing down, Krupa is still up to her old tricks. Her pho­tos of “Sneezy the Penn State Squir­rel” con­tinue to gar­ner thou­sands of likes on Face­book and have been fea­tured in mag­a­zines and cal­en­dars.

“It’s nice to make some­thing and see that peo­ple like it. But I didn’t think it would last this long or be­come this pop­u­lar,” says Krupa, who grad­u­ates next month.

She be­gan in­ter­act­ing with Penn State’s fa­mously friendly gray squir­rels her first week on cam­pus in 2012. Krupa idly won­dered what one would look like with a hat on its head, and, pleased with the re­sult, sent a photo to her grand­mother, who loved it.

With Penn State reel­ing from the Jerry San­dusky sexual abuse scan­dal, Krupa de­cided her fel­low stu­dents could also use a laugh.

“Ev­ery­one was re­ally just down in the dumps, and I fig­ured that Penn State needed some­thing good to take their mind off things, cheer up. And so I started post­ing these pic­tures on Face­book.”

Krupa’s an­thro­po­mor­phized Sneezy would be­come an unofficial mas­cot — Penn State’s very own Rocket J. Squir­rel or Chip and Dale — and, over the course of her col­lege ca­reer, the English ma­jor dreamed up many amus­ing scenes for the squir­relly star.

There’s Sneezy push­ing a tiny shop­ping cart filled with acorns. Sneezy hold­ing a jack-o’-lantern at Hal­loween. Sneezy rak­ing leaves, root­ing for the home team and drink­ing tea, mostly while wear­ing an as­sort­ment of squir­rel-size hats.

An un­likely celebrity

Mara Fitzger­ald, 21, a Penn State stu­dent from Pitts­burgh’s Squir­rel Hill neigh­bor­hood, is a long­time fan.

“I hon­estly knew who she was be­fore I even got to Penn State be­cause my older sis­ters went here and they told me about her,” she says. “My mom knows who she is. I think every­body does.”

Krupa is an un­likely celebrity. Grow­ing up in a wooded neigh­bor­hood out­side State Col­lege, she had al­ways been fond of the birds, squir­rels and other wildlife around her house. Peo­ple were an­other mat­ter. Di­ag­nosed with Asperger’s syn­drome, a milder form of autism, Krupa says she was a loner in high school, anti-so­cial and awk­ward. Sneezy helped Krupa come out of her shell.

“The squir­rel’s ac­tu­ally a good way to break the ice, be­cause I’ ll be sit­ting here pat­ting a squir­rel and other peo­ple will come over and we’ ll just start like feed­ing the squir­rels to­gether and chat­ting about them,” she says. “I am a lot more out­go­ing.”

On a mild Novem­ber af­ter­noon, Krupa looks for Sneezy in and around the ma­jes­tic trees brack­et­ing Old Main, call­ing softly, a con­tainer of roasted, un­salted peanuts un­der one arm.

A few min­utes later, a plump fe­male climbs up Krupa’s arm and takes a seat on her lap. It’s the cur­rent in­car­na­tion of Sneezy (there have been sev­eral). Krupa strokes the squir­rel, then places her fa­vorite hat — a fruited con­coc­tion made with her brother’s 3-D printer — atop Sneezy’s head. It promptly falls off, and the squir­rel scam­pers away.

Even after she grad­u­ates, Krupa

Ev­ery­one was re­ally just down in the dumps, and I fig­ured that Penn State needed some­thing good to take their mind off things, cheer up.” Mary Krupa, the Squir­rel Girl

plans to stay in the area — ready to wel­come the next class of Penn State squir­rels.

“They’re def­i­nitely wild an­i­mals, and I al­ways re­spect them for be­ing wild an­i­mals,” says Krupa, who is mi­nor­ing in wildlife science. “But at the same time, it’s neat that they’re will­ing to let me in­ter­act with them. We do seem to have this mu­tual trust.”

PHOEBE SHEE­HAN / AP

Mary Krupa plays with “Sneezy” the squir­rel on Old Main Lawn in State Col­lege.

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