After four years of befriending squirrels on campus, it’s time to graduate

Penn State senior Mary Krupa puts a Penn State hat on “Sneezy” the squirrel on Old Main Lawn Wednesday, Sept 28, 2016.
Penn State senior Mary Krupa puts a Penn State hat on “Sneezy” the squirrel on Old Main Lawn Wednesday, Sept 28, 2016.

Scattering peanuts on the ground with the flick of a wrist, she can have squirrels eating out of her hand.

The instant she calls her furry companion’s name, Sneezy comes running across Penn State’s Old Main lawn.

And she can remember the campus’ squirrels better than its humans.

There’s something about the fluffiness of the animals’ tails and distinctive markings on their reddish-brown fur, she said.

Meet Mary Krupa, who is winding down a most unusual rise to fame as the Penn State squirrel whisperer. She will graduate in December, but before then she still has a few tricks up her sleeve.

First things first, the State College native plans to snap as many pictures as possible of Sneezy donning Santa hats and fruity headgear — essentially, the kinds of images that catapulted the duo to national and global stardom on the internet.

A lover of all animals, Krupa discovered her prowess for interacting with squirrels one day during her freshman year in the fall of 2012.

She had found a jar of peanut butter left outside and was able to entice a cohort of the creatures to come near her.

“I started wondering if I could touch this squirrel — ‘I wonder what would happen if I would be able to put a little hat on his head and take its picture?’ ” Krupa said. “It was kind of an impulse.”

A few months later in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Krupa said, she was motivated to lighten the mood, so she created “Sneezy The Penn State Squirrel,” a Facebook page chronicling her adventures dressing up Sneezy in whimsical costumes and using props.

Among its many photos, the squirrel has posed with a miniature shopping cart filled with acorns, a treasure chest also overflowing with acorns and a Penn State flag in honor of game day.

The Facebook page now has close to 42,000 likes.

But come this spring Krupa figures she will have less time with Sneezy, and she’s worried the Facebook posts will taper off to the dismay of her fans.

“I’m thinking I can probably keep it going for another year or two,” Krupa said. “Even if I can’t make it down to campus, I have four years’ worth of photos now. I might recycle some of the older ones because they’re still cute.”

Krupa said she hasn’t actively started job-hunting but expects to stay in the State College area for a few years.

Some loyal followers may not realize it, Krupa said, but the account features not just her original playmate but also Sneezy II and other stand-ins.

“Whatever squirrel will cooperate with me gets to be Sneezy,” Krupa said. “It’s kind of a stage name.”

At least 20 eclectic and mainstream publications have been smitten with Krupa and Sneezy.

They’ve been featured in a Taiwanese newspaper that prints only happy stories, an NPR primetime broadcast and a German magazine that mistakenly thought Sneezy was the Penn State mascot, to name a few.

Sue Ellen Krupa said her daughter, who’s on the high-functioning autistic spectrum, has gained an important skill set by speaking with reporters.

“She could always communicate very well, but she just really wouldn’t go out of her way,” Krupa said. “Somebody would have to go out of their way and instigate the conversation.”

Many upperclassmen and alumni are aware the “squirrel whisperer” is a real person, Mary Krupa said, but to underclassmen she is a “myth” or, at the least, an “institution.”

It’s like magic, Krupa said, if she happens to place a hat atop Sneezy while a tour is passing by Old Main.

In the early days, those hats were made of folded paper because Krupa wasn’t sure how much weight would disturb the squirrels.

Transitioning to heftier materials, Krupa most recently relies on her brother’s 3-D printer to design and construct the hats, many of which have thin layers of plastic on their undersides.

In May, Krupa took a photo of Sneezy decked out in her proudest creation: a plastic hat adorned with pineapples, bananas, grapes and other fruit.

“It’s the best one that I’ve ever taken,” Krupa said. “I say that about a lot of them, but it’s actually the best one ever.”

To make those memorable moments a reality, a transaction must occur. After all, Krupa said, the “way to a squirrel’s heart is through its stomach.”

Krupa, to an extent, is a one-woman show.

Sneezy is only consistently amicable toward the squirrel whisperer herself, making it difficult for Krupa to acquire an apprentice.

Though she won’t be passing the torch, Krupa remains confident that students will revel in the cuteness of squirrels for years to come.

The Penn State Squirrels, a student organization, is devoted to feeding the animals. Founder Nina Yin said Krupa, whom she has known since they attended Park Forest Elementary School, is unrivaled in squirrel whispering.

“I think she’s been really great for Penn State because she brings a lot of positivity,” Yin said.

Krupa said she’ll miss spending time with the squirrels. Her mother jokes that instead of talking about her classes when she comes home, Krupa will always launch into the latest Sneezy story.

“It never gets old,” Krupa said with a staccato chuckle as she glimpsed a squirrel wrestling with a twig.

But, Krupa said, this hobby is only part of her identity, something many people don’t realize despite the publicity she’s garnered.

“I’m not just doing this for fun,” she said. “I think it’s very, very important to raise awareness about wildlife and nature.”

With a major in English and minor in wildlife and fisheries science, Krupa said one of her dream jobs involves writing educational materials for an accredited zoo.

In a few years, she might move to New York City.

The squirrels in Central Park might not be friendly, but Krupa isn’t worried.

“I could probably make something happen,” she said.

Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.