Meet the woman who builds tiny rooms for squirrels and photographs them

By John Kelly

A room Nancy Rose set up for her furry models. She lures the squirrels with peanuts. "Those who know what I do think I'm kind of crazy," she said. Photo / Courtesy of Nancy Rose.
A room Nancy Rose set up for her furry models. She lures the squirrels with peanuts. "Those who know what I do think I'm kind of crazy," she said. Photo / Courtesy of Nancy Rose.

When Nancy Rose and her husband were house hunting last year, the first question she'd ask whenever they visited a property was, "Are there squirrels?"

The confused real estate agents would invariably reply: "Are you scared of squirrels?"

"I'd say, 'No, I like squirrels'," Rose said. "'I take photos of squirrels'."

In fact, squirrels are as vital to Rose's work as paints are to a painter or stone is to a sculptor - or, perhaps more accurately, as a ballet dancer is to a choreographer.

Squirrels are Nancy's raw materials. She photographs squirrels engaging in human activities: mailing a letter, cooking dinner, doing the laundry, vacuuming, going camping.

Three of her books have been published in the United States and Canada. A fourth is on the way.

"People still think the squirrels are Photoshopped into the scenes," said Rose, who lives in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

They're not.

"The way their little paws are kind of wrapped around something is pretty much impossible to Photoshop," she said. "Or the way they're standing against something or behind something. They're just funny poses."

A squirrel enjoying one of Nancy's creations. Photo / Nancy Rose
A squirrel enjoying one of Nancy's creations. Photo / Nancy Rose

Funny poses that are the end result of a lot of work. Rose builds tiny sets on her backyard deck in a Halifax suburb and dresses them with squirrel-scaled props. Then she lures squirrels - red squirrels are the species up there - with peanuts. She stands at her tripod-mounted camera and waits for the squirrels to come.

"Those who know what I do think I'm kind of crazy," she said.

Rose's slide into squirrelography was gradual. The onetime home economics teacher and school guidance counsellor had always been crafty. Ten years ago, she took a digital photography course and started taking pictures in her back yard.

"Flowers, scenery, birds," she said. "Then one day the squirrels were there. I thought, 'Let's try to get some of those'."

But after a while, the squirrels bored her. "They were always looking the same," Rose said.

A squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel.

Piling peanuts into a cat food dish and snapping a photo was only mildly amusing. Rose decided: "They need something their size."

She started constructing backdrops, gluing together popsicle sticks, moulding things from self-hardening clay. "My eyes are always open for something that might be squirrel-sized."

Rose came to understand the rhythm of the squirrels, when they were most active, how their natural curiosity would lead them to puzzle out where a nut was hidden.

She posted her photos on Flickr. She made calendars for friends. Then she landed her publishing deal. Her books include The Secret Life of Squirrels, The Secret Life of Squirrels: A Love Story and Merry Christmas, Squirrels!

To me, Rose's masterpiece is the cover of The Secret Life of Squirrels. A squirrel appears to be dropping an envelope into a mailbox.

She made the mailbox out of a blue file folder. (Earlier she'd made a red mailbox, like they have in Canada, but her publisher told her that wouldn't appeal to an American audience.)

She taped a tiny envelope in the opening of the mailbox and put peanuts inside the box.

Canadian photographer Nancy Rose builds tiny sets on her back deck to attract squirrels. She has published three books of her squirrel photos. A fourth is on the way. Photo / Courtesy of Nancy Rose
Canadian photographer Nancy Rose builds tiny sets on her back deck to attract squirrels. She has published three books of her squirrel photos. A fourth is on the way. Photo / Courtesy of Nancy Rose

"I always have the story in my head," Rose said. "Then it's just a matter of praying that he'll do it."

And he did. Rose fired off shot after shot as the squirrel's little paw swept across the envelope, creating an anthropomorphic illusion.

It can take a lot of trial and error, as when Rose made a papier-mache school bus.

"What I really wanted was the squirrel standing by the door of the school bus, like a child waiting for the bus, or in the driver's seat, like a bus driver," she said. "But the squirrel kept going through the front window or out the side window."

A defenestrated squirrel would not be attractive.

"I realized I had to block the windows with stiff clear plastic so the only way into the bus would be through the door," Rose said.

Why squirrels in the first place?

"I guess it's sort of the cuteness factor," said Rose, 63. "If you look at the internet, people are all about baby rabbits and children, anything cute and baby like and fuzzy."

Occasionally, curious chipmunks - members of the squirrel family - stop by, but they don't really serve Rose's purpose.

"They don't stand on their hind legs," she said. "They don't look like little people."

The Roses have just moved to a suburb on the other side of Halifax to be closer to their new grandson. Are there squirrels?

"There are a couple of big trees in the back yard and there was a squirrel on each bird feeder when we visited," Rose said. Plenty of material to work with.

- Washington Post

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