Iraq. On the graves of two soldiers one British, one American two rifles are crowned with the dead men's helmets. In front of concertina wire, silhouetted against a blue sky, stands a soldier weighed down with a heavy pack. She holds her rifle across her body, her head bowed, eyes closed in prayer. It's a picture of military honor.
Soldiers stationed in Iraq say that the fact that she is a squirrel wearing miniature combat fatigues and holding a tiny AK-47 makes her even more inspiring.
Her name is Sugar Bush Squirrel, and she is the pampered pet of Boca Raton resident Kelly Foxton. More than a thousand photographs of Sugar Bush can be found on her website, sugarbushsquirrel.com, showing her as everything from a blushing bride to the pope.
But it's the shots of Sugar Bush in military getups that bring in the most web traffic. Photos of the squirrel posing with firearms, riding tiny tanks, and uncovering terrorist weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a sensation. With almost a million hits in its first year of operation, the rodent's website has apparently been boosting troop morale better than George Bush handing out Thanksgiving turkey in a Baghdad mess hall.
The most popular Sugar Bush snapshot by far is "Searching for Osama," a photograph of the squirrel in a tiny turban and wearing a chilling jihadi stare. The caption explains that Sugar Bush is undercover in Afghanistan, searching for the leader of al Qaeda. She shoots to kill.
Ben Ford was so moved by the Osama photograph that he tattooed an image of it on his calf. A 29-year-old sergeant in the Army National Guard stationed in Iraq, Ford has used other Sugar Bush photos as his desktop computer's wallpaper, such as one of the squirrel praying at the graveside of allied soldiers.
"Sugar Bush has been a huge inspiration on me, and I got the tat to prove it," he says. The tattoo design is in memory of his best friend, Staff Sgt. Mike McMullin, who died in an insurgent attack in Ramadi last year. Before finding Sugar Bush, Ford struggled with how to best remember McMullin, who was nicknamed "Squirrel" by his buddies for his manner and odd, squirrel-like back hair. Sugar Bush was perfect.
"He's holding an M-16, and he has a Camel cigarette in his mouth," says Ford, who Photoshopped the picture to make it a more personal memorial. "I got it done before I went down and met his family. I showed them, and they were more than impressed."
It's not just soldiers who love Sugar Bush. Foxton's e-mail inbox is perpetually filled with letters of praise from homefront patriots across the country.
"Thank God for our ALL volunteer military, the finest and most powerful in the world and thank God for President Bush," wrote one recently. "Keep up the good work and may God bless you for what you are doing."
Last year, soon after her website launched, Sugar Bush made a British tabloid, the militant mammal starring in a two-page photo spread in the Sun. Then she received requests for television appearances from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Animal Planet. Film crews from as far away as Sweden came calling. The producers of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wanted Sugar Bush to pose for a DVD extra for the film. Foxton turned them all down.
"I didn't want to betray her trust," she says.
Sugar Bush has even attracted the attention of the enemy. "I get e-mails from Arabs I even sent one of them to the CIA," Foxton says. "I think for a while they've been intercepting my e-mails anyway." According to Foxton, this particular correspondent claimed to know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, but the CIA wasn't interested in following up the tip.
"They should check every lead don't fluff us off," Foxton says. "This guy has information about Osama, and he's willing to tell Sugar Bush."
Foxton's own career as a military pinup set the stage for Sugar Bush's superstardom.
After a childhood in Athens, Georgia, and a college career spent winning national championships for baton twirling, Foxton, whose real name is Joyce Sanders, struck it big when she was 29. She was plucked from an audience in Nashville by Hank Snow, an aging country singer and Grand Ole Opry staple, for her singing talent and her good looks. She signed with RCA in 1981 to cut two albums and "a slew of singles" with Snow, and for a decade, she was his busty duet partner, charming audiences with ballads such as "Win Some Lose Some Lonesome."
"I saw it on the news and thought, 'There's got to be something to do for all the guys over there. '"
So she paid to send to troops thousands of copies of a pinup shot of herself saluting with a gun in a bathing suit, heels, and an officer's hat. In response, she received hundreds of letters, a modest show of media attention, and the nickname "Military Pin-Up Queen of the 1980s." Her image was tacked on barrack walls from Beirut to Grenada. Meanwhile, the singing continued. In the 1990s, wanting to broaden her audience, she went solo, moving back east to South Florida to work the cruise ships.
"I miss doing things for the military," she says. But instead of posing for photos herself, she now sends soldiers shots of her pet squirrel in drag and even takes custom orders. Sugar Bush can pose in the "military attire of his/her choice."
Foxton is still blond and shapely (though she won't disclose her age). She's happily married to a music teacher at Pine Crest School and largely retired from the singing business. One wall of her Boca Raton house is a shrine of plaques and newspaper clippings dedicated to her career, but now she wears a tiny golden squirrel pendant around her neck and devotes her prodigious energies entirely to her all-consuming passion: Sugar Bush.
Foxton has owned pet squirrels ever since she was a child and had raised eight of them before taking in Sugar Bush three years ago. Construction workers who had felled a tree brought Foxton a 5-week-old Sugar Bush in response to "Squirrel Wanted" ads she posted on telephone poles. After a long year spent "earning her trust," Sugar Bush was tame enough for her close-up.
"Training a squirrel is like training a husband," Foxton says. "Lots of love and telling them the same thing over and over again."
Foxton coaxes Sugar Bush into poses while her mother mans the camera. It begins with a gentle but persistent stream of baby talk.
"We're going to hunt for Osama bin Laden!" Foxton coos, opening the door to Sugar Bush's palatial cage. The animal is usually skittery but calms in response to Foxton's Southern lilt. The flow of baby talk seems to hypnotize her so that Foxton can pick her up and slip a tiny camouflage flak vest onto her chest and a turban on her head.
"She's being so good," Foxton whispers. Then, after Sugar Bush briefly freaks out, flailing wildly, she stays still long enough for the photo shoot to proceed.
Foxton's spacious home in a Boca Raton development is ruled by Sugar Bush's needs. Daily, Foxton prepares 28 fresh fruits and vegetables for the animal and brushes her twice from nose to tail. What was once a wet bar is now the squirrel's linen closet, and the foyer is a memorial to all things ceramic and squirrely.
The former living room is now entirely converted into a studio and dressing room. Sugar Bush is enthroned in the center, in a large cage with a view of the swimming pool. At one end of the room, an entire wall is lined floor to ceiling with racks of hanging plastic bags filled with tiny squirrel outfits, coordinated for convenience. At the other, shelves and tables are stacked high with props from photo shoots dollhouse-sized furniture, miniature cars, a wooden stage housing interchangeable backdrops and floor coverings.
"This is everything I ever wanted to do," Foxton says. "It incorporates design, drawing, computers, communications, animals, etc. It's religious, it's patriotic... I enjoy this more than I ever enjoyed singing."
On the web, Sugar Bush is also one opinionated creature. In the "Sermon Squirrel" section of her website, Sugar Bush explains (with Foxton ghostwriting, naturally) that she's an avid proponent of prayer in schools and has sent President Bush a photograph of herself praying with a passionate plea to reduce the separation of church and state. She is antidrug and pro-family values. And, of course, she is 110 percent behind the War in Iraq.
But what has inflamed passions on blogs and messageboards across the Internet is not Sugar Bush's politics so much as the state of her health. Most people seem unable to believe that she is a real live squirrel.
"I've heard it all," Foxton says. "She's a stuffed animal; she's dead. The bloggers are still having a field day with it."
Foxton has attempted to pacify doubters by posting "action shots" of Sugar Bush that show her in midleap (in a tiny karate outfit). The site insists that Sugar Bush is a "real, live Eastern Gray Squirrel."
"As long as they think she's not real, they're taken in," Foxton says with the calculating acumen of a showman. "I get half a million hits that way."
But the most criticism, by far, is from those who are convinced that Sugar Bush is alive and miserable.
"I think the most controversial thing is the fact that I'm dressing up a squirrel," Foxton says. "Just about every day, I can count on getting an e-mail from somebody asking why I don't free that poor little thing."
One such e-mail, from an anonymous sender, reads: "Your kind [sic] an asshole for exploiting that poor squirrel."
"Most of the time, I'll answer as if Sugar Bush is writing it," Foxton says. "I'm sure that infuriates them even more."
Animal-rights activists frequently use Sugar Bush as a horrific example of what they are fighting against on messageboards.
"Does anyone else find a squirrel that was 'rescued from a tree,' dressed up in a knitted sweater, re-enacting scenes from the tsunami and petitioning for human-rights more than a little disturbing, and darest I say it, ironic?" writes one poster on the web.
Another simply says, "I bet that squirrel wishes he was dead."
But the world's reception of Sugar Bush is better than it used to be. "The response I get is more serious now, instead of 'die bitch, die,'" Foxton says. "People are taking her as the icon that she is."
Foxton has big plans for Sugar Bush. "The possibilities are endless," she says. "I want her to be like Mickey Mouse."
After selling 2,500 copies of Sugar Bush's 2005 calendar at $10 each last year, she has plans for a line of greeting cards, children's books, and a line of miniature clothing called the Bushy Tail Boutique. But she's in no rush. Just as she spent three weeks painstakingly constructing the set for a Ground Zero photograph of the squirrel, she plans to build up Sugar Bush from an online curiosity to an international icon.
"Hank used to tell me, 'Build your career slowly and you will stay there,'" Foxton says. Following her former mentor's advice, Foxton has invested in a stroller rigged with a squirrel cage that she will use to stroll outside with Sugar Bush in the Keys while on vacation with her husband. The idea is to get Sugar Bush comfortable around humans lots of humans. Then maybe someday, she'll be ready for Jay Leno.
As for the little people, well, Sugar Bush will never forget them.
"I also want Sugar Bush to be Boca's mascot," Foxton says of the squirrel's hometown. One of Sugar Bush's photos depicts her standing at the entrance to Boca Raton, clad in full hazardous-waste gear, protecting the town from a chemical attack. Hopefully, she says, Boca will thank its littlest patriot with all the proper grandeur ideally on the cover of Boca Raton magazine.
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