John Snyder never meant to be the squirrel guy.
For most of his life, he’d barely seen squirrels. They don’t have many of those in Texas, where he grew up.
Then Snyder and his partner, Christina, moved to Colorado Springs six years ago. They bought a house with a big backyard near Palmer Park. Squirrels were all around.
The little animals didn’t make the best first impression, tearing into the cushions of the expensive patio furniture Snyder had just bought.
He didn’t get mad. He took a second to think. “Why would they do that?” he asked himself. “Well, they’re probably cold and looking for warmth.”
So Snyder bought cheap pillows from Walmart for the squirrels to dig into instead.
Fast forward to one day in 2019. In their backyard, Christina found a baby squirrel, who was alone and needed taken care of. Snyder got the idea to build a small cage to keep it safe from cold and predators. They named her Captain Sandy, after one of Christina’s favorite TV personalities. When Sandy grew up and had babies, Snyder built a bigger house to hang up in a tree. The family of squirrels moved right in.
“That was pretty much the beginning,” Snyder, 44, said.
That’s when he started making wooden birdhouse-like boxes for squirrels. Lots of them. And he gives them away for free.
Using donated pieces of cedar or oak and his woodworking skills, he’s crafted more than 250 boxes in the last year and a half.
The boxes come with a tilted roof, which Snyder likes to style after architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Some have walkways and hidden areas, so squirrels have little spots to hide from predators. Some also have pillow stuffing for insulation.
“I don’t know why, but these sweet little creatures have captured my heart,” Snyder said. “If I can help protect them, why wouldn’t I?”
Snyder builds the houses in his spare time, when he’s not skateboarding or working as an IT engineer. It’s his time to be outside, away from his computer monitors, and zone out.
Usually, just as soon as he finishes a box, he finds a home for it, via the Nextdoor app or just by meeting people on walks around Palmer Park. He often offers to hang them up in strangers’ trees.
Along the way, Snyder tries to share his perspective on squirrels, which not everyone agrees with.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that people see them as a nuisance,” Snyder said. “To me, that’s 100% wrong.”
Snyder knows squirrels can certainly make enemies. A neighbor was left with $3,000 in damages after squirrels dug around in his car and chewed through wires.
“I can’t convince that guy to love squirrels,” he said.
He can’t convince other people to think they’re cute or worth caring about. Depending on who you ask, squirrels are considered annoying, frustrating or worse. And there’s long been a debate about whether to feed squirrels, which could be boiled down to a debate about whether to welcome squirrels onto your property at all.
In Colorado Springs, feeding squirrels is prohibited. People can face fines of up to $500 for feeding them and other wildlife.
Worst of all, for Snyder, he can’t convince people to not want them dead.
In Colorado, killing squirrels is within the law.
Synder has seen that firsthand. He knows of people running squirrels over with their car on purpose. He knows of people in town with traps to capture squirrels and shoot them. That’s how he suspects Little Sidney, a squirrel that lived in Snyder’s backyard, wound up on his front porch shot in the face. Snyder thinks the injured animal crawled home after the encounter.
He remembers giving Sidney pets and spoonfuls of peanut butter as she died.
“That broke something inside me that I didn’t know was there,” Snyder said. “That somebody would hurt them … it breaks my heart.”
Snyder knows he can’t change everyone’s mind.
“Everybody has their opinion,” he said. “It is what it is.”
But he’s out to do his best to make squirrels safe.
“My head says they’re God’s creatures,” he said. “And they’re worth helping.”
That’s why his backyard is something of a safe haven for squirrels. Along with a skateboard ramp, greenhouse and a lime tree, there are several homemade squirrel boxes in his trees.
And always squirrels to see.
“They’re kind of like my spirit animal,” Snyder said. “They’re mean one moment and then they’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
And, he says, “They’re just cute, man.”
He calls them precious and peaceful. He watches them play or look for nuts. He’s no expert, but he’s read all about their habits.
“You never know what they’re thinking, but they’re very loving,” he says.
And that’s why Snyder continues his hobby of box making. After recently joining Instagram, he’s gotten requests for fixtures from all over the country.
“I don’t do it for a thank you,” he said. “I do it because I have the means to.”
When he gives away a box, he just asks for a picture of it with a squirrel inside.
“It makes me happy to know that I made them feel safe,” he says. “It gives me a sense of purpose.”
Snyder feels that same sense of purpose in his backyard, where Captain Sandy can still be found scurrying around or peeking her head out of her house.
“I can’t change the world,” he said. “But I can make a little squirrel happy with one box.”