Brenna Henderson looks like your average teenager. The Osceola Fundamental high school sophomore turns 17 in May. She goes to the Casino for swing dances with her boyfriend, and they’ll both go to homecoming in a few weeks. She watches TV. She hangs out with her friends.
She’s also tried to save over 50 small animals. She’s helped over 50 birds, squirrels, chipmunks and snakes when they were injured. Some make it; some don’t. Some go to the bird sanctuary, some go back into the wild.
This is the story of how one teenager took time out from football games, boyfriend, and hanging out with her friends to help Buster the squirrel. It’s not just about Buster; it’s about Brenna and how her huge soft spot for wild animals makes her one of Gulfport’s Community Treasures.
Spoiler alert: this story doesn’t have a great ending.
About a month ago, Brenna’s parents had gone out for the night. She was home alone when she heard a knock. Her two adult neighbors stood there, with a tiny squirrel wrapped in a towel.
“My cat had him in his mouth,” one neighbor said, and asked if she could help the squirrel. They explained that their cat had killed the other squirrel babies in the nest.
“I didn’t see him breathing,” Brenna remembered. “I didn’t know if I had to call Dad and ask permission, but then I was like, ‘We do this all the time’ so I spread towels on the bed.”
That’s when she was sure the squirrel was still alive – she could see him breathing, but he couldn’t seem to move his back legs.
“I think maybe he [the cat] bit down hard enough, maybe to fracture a little bit of bone,” she said.
Not sure what to do next, she found some almond milk and called her parents to ask where they kept the eyedropper. Her dad asked why, and when she told him, he said he was a little surprised that his adult neighbors would bring a teenage girl a baby squirrel, but he added that he was proud that they knew his daughter would know what to do.
Brenna named the squirrel Buster. She and her dad brought Buster to a small animal vet, who told them they could leave the squirrel there but that he would likely euthanize him. The vet told him that Buster didn’t appear to have any pain or distress, so they took Buster back home.
Gulfportian Beth Armstrong donated a cage, and Brenna and her parents set Buster up in a squirrel condo, complete with heating pad, stuffed monkey, and a small bolster pillow on which they hoped Buster would one day climb. Pretty soon, Buster started to go to the bathroom which, Brenna explained, was a huge sign that he was doing OK. All systems seemed functioning properly.
Buster graduated to nuts, although Brenna still fed him almond milk before and after school.
Taking a cue from her grandmother, who also helped a cornucopia of small creatures, Brenna started stroking two fingers down either side of Buster’s spine “to stimulate the blood flow” in hopes that the paraplegic squirrel would start to move his legs. The real breakthrough, however, came when Tucker, the family dog adopted at a Gulfport Get Rescued event, came over when Brenna had Buster out of his squirrel condo one night. Brenna said her dog had a definite “lack of interest” in the squirrel, but this time he came over and, under Brenna and her family’s watchful eye, started gently licking Busters hind legs.
For the first time since the cat attack, Buster moved his back legs.
“He moves his legs more every day,” Brenna said as Buster climbed up her arm Friday afternoon. By Friday, Buster started trying to curl his back paws around things. Brenna had high hopes for Buster, but part of her didn’t want to see him go. She and her dad found a licensed wildlife rehabilitation rehabilitation specialist in Plant City, one who focused on squirrels. Buster was squirrel rescue-bound as soon as he healed a little more. Lovely Lita’s would help prepare Buster for release into the wild if he regained full use of his legs.
“I don’t want to see him go,” Brenna said, putting Buster back in his cage. “But we don’t have a license.”
Unfortunately, that’s where Buster’s story ended. On Sunday afternoon, Buster stopped moving. According to her parents, Brenna took it better than they did. Brenna says each of her parents blame themselves. She also says that she won’t stop trying to help animals.
“You kind of expect them to die,” she says, because of the way the animals come to her, “but you take them in and try to make them feel as comfortable as possible and not put them in any more distress.”
Brenna thinks she might like to be a veterinarian, or work with animal rescue programs. She tried to volunteer at a shelter, but they told her she had to wait until she was 18.
“I really love doing it. I like the satisfaction of helping other animals, even if they have a low chance of living,” she says. “They may not have too, too long, but they do have some life left, and they’re not just going to sit and decay.”
Still, though, when a baby squirrel dies, especially after she spends two months hoping against all odds that he’ll make it, watching him get a little better every day, it hurts. She sums it up as only a teenager will:
“It feels like crap,” she says.