At first, Rick didn’t even know how big he had become. He’s a plumbing and HVAC contractor in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The coronavirus pandemic has dropped business to zero. That’s given Rick time to tinker in his basement.
Rick, 43, has loved squirrels since he found an orphaned baby squirrel on the curb a few years ago. He raised the squirrel — which he named “Bebo” — for a year and half before releasing him. Since then, Rick has put out nuts for the squirrels along with seeds for the birds every morning.
And he’s posted photos to a Facebook group called “All About Squirrels.”
“I’ve put many photos there in the past and gotten around 60 likes and two shares,” Rick said.
Those are modest numbers. At the end of March, with a lot of time on his hands, Rick cut some leftover decking, screwed it together and added a red plastic cup. He mounted the tiny picnic table to his fence and filled the cup with seeds. A squirrel sat and started chowing down. Rick snapped a photo and put it on Facebook.
“I went about my day,” Rick said. “I was having dinner and my husband was like, ‘Do you realize that photo has over 200,000 shares?’ I had no idea.”
But what really boosted the table was what happened a couple of days later. Rick’s photo had wound up on a closed Facebook page for mothers that a woman in Miami named Lucy Small belongs to. On March 31, Lucy copied the image and posted it to the 30,000 followers of her Twitter account — @lucyleid — with the line: “2 weeks of isolation and we’re out here making picnic tables for squirrels because we’re insane.”
Twitter went insane, too.
“I’m looking at it now,” Lucy said. “It has 400,000 likes, 77,000 retweets and over 3,000 comments. I think you never know what’s actually going to be a hit or when. I fully think the same tweet a day later or earlier wouldn’t have caught on.”
Lucy didn’t mean to suggest that she had made the table, just that the collective “we” — the millions of us stuck inside, social distancing — were going a bit loopy.
“I just think everyone is living in such a ridiculous head space, they’re considering taking on things they never would have thought of before,” she said.
That includes making tiny picnic tables for squirrels.
Lucy had no idea where the photo had come from originally, but when Rick’s aunt contacted her, she quickly sent people Rick’s way.
Rick is quick to admit he didn’t invent the squirrel-size picnic table. You can find other versions online. And he originally had no intention of making them for anyone save himself. But soon he was bombarded with requests.
“People on Facebook were saying, ‘I’d love one. Can you make me one?’ ” Rick said. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll make you one.’ ”
Before long, what was a handful of orders had blossomed to nearly 1,000. Rick’s husband, Brett Kalinowski, created an LLC called Squirrelly Treasure Co., while Rick stocked up on wood from Home Depot and scoured every dollar store within an hour’s drive to find the red plastic cup that makes the tableau so perfect.
You can buy a finished table on Etsy for $35 or get a DIY kit for $15 ($10 extra for cedar wood). For $7 you can buy the plans.
“I’m doing this full time in my basement,” Rick said.
Lucy works in marketing and understands the vagaries of social media.
“A good viral post is the right thing at the right time,” she said. “I think now is the time for just the most ridiculous things.”
Not that she’s actually partaking herself. Lucy doesn’t have a mini-picnic table of her own.
“I live in Florida, where we don’t see a lot of squirrels,” she said. “All it would attract are lizards and rats, and I don’t want any of those.”
Rick thinks he knows why now is the time for his silly project: “People were so lost with life, stuck in their homes with their children, not knowing what to do.”
Why not build a little picnic table for the squirrels?
“I’m just enjoying all the joy I’m bringing to everybody in this really bad time,” Rick said.
He’s enjoying something else, too: “I still get up every morning and feed the squirrels and sit with coffee looking out at them eating.”
Tomorrow: Squirrel Week continues with a look at Ratatoskr, the message-carrying squirrel of Norse mythology.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.