STATE COLLEGE, Pa. >> 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,” said 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.
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 said. “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 said she was a loner in high school, antisocial 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 said. “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 3D printer — atop Sneezy’s head. It promptly falls off, and the squirrel scampers away.
Even after she graduates, Krupa 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,” said 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.”