It's the day before the opening of the Richmond Home & Garden Show in March, and Lou Ann Best is telling me about the emptiness she felt after the death of her husband, Chuck. Pressed tightly against her chest is a squirrel, perhaps the most famous squirrel in the world: Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel.
Twiggy is about to be pulled behind a remote-controlled boat in a shallow pool that's been erected in a show building near the Richmond International Raceway. Local TV news crews are getting in position for their shots. Everyone loves a water-skiing squirrel.
"I quit after Chuck died," Lou Ann says. "I didn't think I could do this."
'Twiggy' takes first lap in brand new pool
When Chuck died, the fun seemed to go out of escorting a water-skiing squirrel around the country.
It was 1978 when Chuck and Lou Ann taught their first squirrel to water ski. At the time, they ran a skating rink in Sanford, Fla., and they were adept at teaching animals to do unusual things. The rink's mascot was Moose, a roller-skating chimp. They had also taught a French poodle to surf.
"It was totally a joke," Lou Ann says of training that first squirrel, an orphan brought to them by a roofer friend. Chuck had just bought a RC boat for their daughter Lalainia, and friends dared him to use it with the squirrel.
How do you train a squirrel to water-ski?
"We started in the bathtub," Lou Ann says. "You sit in the bathtub and let them run around. After a while, they don't need you in the water. They're so used to it, it's like second nature."
Chuck spent hours fashioning little skis out of plastic foam and packing crates. They took Twiggy on family trips to Lake Monroe, practicing until she would patiently stand on the little skis.
The local paper got wind of the Bests' water-skiing squirrel and did a story. Then a bigger newspaper did one. Then a wire service reporter came. Then a TV crew. Twiggy went viral.
In 1979, the organizer of a boat show in Palm Beach booked Twiggy. He told Chuck and Lou Ann, "If this works well, I'm taking you to Louisville, to my other show."
It worked well. Twiggy became a fixture at boat shows, RV shows and home shows, and was featured on TV's "Real People." The Bests sold the roller rink. They traveled the land with their squirrels in a 40-foot motor home. Since squirrels don't live that long, they were always training a new Twiggy.
Then, in 1997, on a family boating trip, Chuck drowned. He'd rescued his struggling stepfather from the water before sinking under the surface. Lou Ann says, "My son, who just turned 16, had to pull his daddy dead out of the river."
Lou Ann stopped touring. Then Twiggy #3 died. Twiggy #4 wasn't quite ready, and Lou Ann didn't feel much like going back on the road, anyway.
Still, the requests kept pouring in, and Lou Ann decided maybe a greater power was at work.
"The only thing I can figure is the Lord knew how my husband would die, in a boating accident," she says.
Lou Ann successfully trained Twiggy #4 herself and got back on the show circuit, delivering a water-safety message: Learn to swim. Listen to the lifeguard. Wear a life jacket when boating.
And now here she is in Richmond with her son, Chuck Jr. "I was going to be a stockbroker, then I decided to do this," he says. "It's actually a lot more fun."
Chuck helps with marketing and social media. (You can find Twiggy's Tweets at @TwiggysLagoon.
Before the show opens to the public, the media has gathered. We watch as Lou Ann slips off her shoes and steps into a shallow pool. Chuck Jr. drives the boat up to his mother and she gently places Twiggy on the skis behind it. The squirrel grabs the handlebars and the boat zips off, carving circle after circle in the clear water.
It is a truly mesmerizing sight.
Does the squirrel mind?
"I'm not hurting the squirrel," says Lou Ann, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. "There's nothing unnatural about what she's doing."
Twiggy performs wearing a tiny life jacket, the sort of equipment that might have saved Chuck Sr.
"I believe with all my heart and soul this was the Lord's purpose," Lou Ann says. "I do these water park shows all the time, and little kids will run up to me and say: 'I just want to tell you, I went out there and learned to float, just like Twiggy said.'
"See, that's the magic of the whole thing. They hear Twiggy. Animals speak to you."