Squirrel trainer Chuck Best Jr. stands beside a shallow pool at the Lane Events Center, holding a remote control for a tiny boat connected to tiny water skis. His public relations manager, Sydney Garrett, unzips her plaid jacket, pulls out a squirrel and places it on the skis.
The squirrel — sporting a red life jacket for water safety — holds onto the handle in front of her as the boat begins to go in circles around the pool.
This is Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel.
Best, 38, is a second-generation trainer for a water skiing squirrel act that has traveled around the U.S. for 40 years. He and his team came to Eugene for the first time to have their one-year-old rescue squirrel, the 10th Twiggy, perform at the Lane County Home Improvement Show on Oct. 11-13.
I sit down for an interview with Best and Garrett in a large room at the Lane Events Center. Garrett again unzips her jacket and reveals Twiggy, like a magic trick. She sets Twiggy on the table and we watch as the Eastern gray squirrel looks around and scampers off, her bushy tail bouncing behind her as she runs across the near-empty room.
It’s an unusual scene to witness: a squirrel running wild inside a building like any other common house pet. But Twiggy is no ordinary squirrel, and her owner, Best, is no ordinary squirrel trainer.
A Florida native, Best was born into the aquatic squirrel business.
The act started in 1979, a few years before he was born. His father, Chuck Best Sr., purchased a remote-controlled boat for his daughter, Lalania. A friend came up to him and noted that he didn’t buy the boat for his daughter — he bought it for himself.
Best says his father joked back and said, “You know I have the boat so I can teach my pet squirrel how to waterski.” Best Sr. did have a pet squirrel at the time.
Although the idea was born from a joke, Best Sr. decided to try it out. He began by placing the original Twiggy on some jet skis he made for her, and snapped a photo. The picture spread around newspapers in Florida, prompting Best Sr. to actually teach Twiggy how to waterski.
With practice and repetition — which involved placing Twiggy on the skis in a bathtub — Best Sr. taught her to ski. In November 1979, Twiggy performed in her first show.
Best stops talking for a moment and looks to my left. Twiggy sits in the chair next to me and, without hesitation, she scrambles up onto my shoulder. Best laughs.
“You can tell she’s very friendly.”
All of the squirrels recruited for the act over the years are rescues that couldn’t be released back into the wild. These rescue squirrels are often found injured or abandoned as babies. When local people find the squirrels, they call Best or his mother to take them in.
Most of the kept squirrels become Twiggys, and each one has its own personality, water skiing ability and name. The current Twiggy is called “Twiglet,” and the last Twiggy was named “Hollywood.” There have also been a few male Twiggys. Best says they usually rescue around 10-15 squirrels a year.
Different Twiggys have enjoyed their share of fame over the years, starring in a Brad Paisley music video for the song River Bank as well as a mention and cameo in the film Anchorman.
Twiggy’s show was the family’s side gig through the years, and Best Sr. even added a few variations by teaching squirrels how to hang glide and ride a jet ski.
In 1997, Best Sr. died in a boating accident. His wife, Lou Anne Best, never thought of herself as a performer. At first she quit, but was convinced to continue, so she kept the act going until she retired last year. That’s when Best stepped in and took over.
“I did 21 shows this year, and I’ve been on the road since January,” he says. “It’s been a very successful year.”
Best stops speaking again and looks behind me at Twiggy on the floor near the wall.
“What’s she eating?” Best asks.
“That moth,” Garrett says.
“Oh, that’s nutritional.”
Twiggy holds the moth like a nut and nibbles it.
Twiggy’s act changed as it passed from one member of the Best family to another. After Best Sr. died, Lou Ann Best refocused the show on water safety.
Today, the show starts with a performance of Twiggys’s water skiing skills and is accompanied by Twiggy’s dog “lifeguard” Roxie — a Chihuahua-dachshund mix. Best added a section of the show where a newer squirrel learns to ski.
While Twiggy demonstrates her water skiing skills, Best gives tips on water safety, repeating the line his mother used: “Learn to swim, learn to float and always wear a life jacket in the boat.”
At the end of the show he demonstrates Twiggy’s counting ability, having the audience decide how many laps she should take around the pool.
As a seasoned squirrel rehabilitator, Best says that a common misconception is that squirrels make good pets. Squirrels need to release energy and can become mean if they don’t have enough room to run around, he says.
“You are going to find nuts in your shoes, in your socks, in your bed. You gotta keep the bread in the microwave. That was always a thing at our house.”
Best has spent most of his life traveling around with a Twiggy. He enjoys doing the shows and taking care of squirrels.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the ones we teach how to water ski end up having a better personality,” Best says. “The more you interact with your animal, the happier they are, so they end up being a better animal. It’s the same thing with the Twiggys.” ν
To learn more about Twiggy’s history and upcoming performances, visit TwiggysInc.com or @TwiggysInc on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.