She sure has. Not long after the body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was exhumed in 2007, Kelly posted a photo of her squirrel, Sugar Bush, wearing a distinctive kaffiyeh headdress. To mark the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Sugar Bush posed in a hijab in front of a Pakistani flag. To capitalize on last year’s Mayan Apocalypse mania, Kelly dressed Sugar Bush in a colorful tunic and headdress: Quetzsquirrelcoatl.
The world did not end. Kelly and her squirrel show no signs of slowing down, either.
“She’s taken over our house,” Kelly said of Sugar Bush (who, sort of like Lassie, is actually a series of squirrels). “We have a 4,000-square-foot house. Her props and everything are like at least 2,500 feet of this house.”
Kelly labors every day on her Sugar Bush tableaux. She builds elaborate props and backdrops. She buys dolls just for the squirrel-sized clothes they’re wearing. She’s been doing this since 2001, when she had the urge to take her first photo: a squirrel wearing a T-shirt that read “I am loved” standing next to a Bill Clinton action figure.
So, was the squirrel meant to be Monica Lewinsky?
“That was the idea,” Kelly said. “But the photograph was real blurry. I didn’t put her on the Internet.”
She did post one of Fidel Castro — in his hospital bed — on the Internet. And Pope John Paul II. (“I really got reamed for that one,” she said. “But so many people loved it. They ordered that picture a lot.”)
One of the first photos to go truly viral was a re-creation of the iconic Ground Zero scene, with Sugar Bush in a firefighter’s coat.
Kelly has been around squirrels all her life. Her father was a police officer in Georgia who had a side job cutting down trees. Whenever he discovered a nest, he would bring Kelly the babies.
“I’ve had squirrels ever since,” she said.
A champion baton twirler in college, Kelly also had a career in country music, singing with Hank Snow. She said that nothing compares to what she’s doing now.
“This incorporates stagecraft, computers, photography, costume design, working with animals, using my imagination — everything I ever wanted to do wrapped up into one.”
On Wednesday, Kelly’s story will be featured on TLC’s “My Crazy Obsession.” She’s a little nervous about how she’ll be portrayed, but said, “I’m at the point where I don’t really care what people think.”
I asked her what she thought the squirrels thought.
“They love the attention, just like a dog would,” Kelly said. “I used to dress my poodle. No one thought much about that. A squirrel, they go, ‘What?’ It’s almost uncharted territory.”
Kelly has recently started dabbling in video, teaching herself how to use Avid editing software and introducing the Squirrel News Network. This may silence doubters who claim Sugar Bush is not alive. (“I would never pose a taxidermied squirrel,” Kelly said.)
Her most ambitious project will tackle the greatest story ever told: the life of Jesus.
“It’s very difficult to work with a squirrel,” Kelly said. “Actually getting a squirrel to climb up a hill with a cross on her shoulder is not easy. I’ve already got the manger scene done. I’m working on the carpenter scene, with the tool chest.
“I’m going to have a lot of people who say it’s sacrilegious. It’s not. Sugar Bush is a sweet little animal. She’s just doing her own version of the story of Jesus. . . . I have to be careful with what I do, but at the same time I push the boundaries.”
I asked Kelly what she hoped viewers would feel when they see photos of Sugar Bush.
“I want them to look at that little squirrel that Kelly took and dressed up — and it actually sat there and rode in a little car or flew in a little plane or rode in a tank or prayed for the troops — I want them to see the squirrel in their yard and think, ‘That little squirrel could have done that if it had been the one that Kelly got.’
“I want people to love animals.”
Squirrels of the world
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For previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.