It was New Years Eve, and something was wrong with Miss Suzy the squirrel.
Paul saw her lying in a ball, on the floor. He and his wife Bonnie took Suzy to an emergency vet clinic, Tampa Bay Veterinary Service. There, they got news that Suzy not only had an infection, but a lump.
The vet said it could be breast cancer, recommend a specialist.
"I can't lose her," Paul says. "She's the love of my life. I just love her."
Paul has always enjoyed feeding wild squirrels, but he'd never considered bringing one indoors.
In 2008, that changed, when he found a full grown squirrel injured in the road, having been hit by a car.
Paul picked her up and put her in the grass, thinking she would have a place to peacefully die. The next day, Paul went back to check on the squirrel. She was still alive.
"There she was," he says. "I picked her up, put her in a box, brought her home."
Paul and his wife Bonnie named this squirrel Miss Suzy, after one of Bonnie's favorite books as a child. They nursed her back to health.
They were living in a state where it is not legal to keep pet squirrels, however. So even though Suzy seemed disinclined to leave them, they knew that they were in a precarious position. They had to find a veterinarian who wouldn't report them to the government; they had to be careful of not letting neighbors know about their pet -- who'd become, Paul says, like a child to the couple. She watches TV with them; they dress her in little hats.
They weren't looking to add to their family, but more injured squirrels kept finding their ways to Paul and Bonnie. A year later, they took in a blind squirrel they named Stevie Wonder, who'd been found running back and forth on a busy road.
Then came Sadie, and Sophie, and Sarah, and Simon — each one injured and vulnerable, and likely to die without Paul and Bonnie
"There's a lot of people who think I'm absolutely out of my mind. I love them. I don't care," Paul says.
Last fall, Paul and Bonnie left this other state to move to Florida, about an hour from Tampa. The move was inspired in part to be closer to their human son — and was also in order to keep their squirrels safe, since they are not restricted or illegal here.
They have received multiple reassurances -- from relevant governmental authorities; from their veterinarian -- that they run no current risks. Paul still desires privacy, for us not to give his last name, for example, just in case.
But he recognizes how fortunate it is, that the family had arrived here just in time for Suzy's diagnosis.
"I can't lose her," Paul says.
Suzy has undergone surgery to remove her tumor. The vets are concerned that there "may still be tumor cells present in the body, so chemotherapy was started to try to kill the remaining tumor cells in her body and slow or prevent regrowth," says Dr. Peter Helmer, a bird and exotic animal specialist at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa.
It's a little hard to gauge Miss Suzy's prognosis. The literature on cancer treatment for squirrels is rare enough, that there "are not a lot of squirrel chemotherapy articles for us to read," says Helmer. That said, thank goodness, "she is doing very well so far."
Paul loves dogs, too, but recognizes that they've spent tens of thousands of years evolving to love him back. It's not that way with the squirrels. It's not that way with Suzy. There's something special about loving, and being loved, by an animal who started off wild.
It's cost something in the range of $5,000 to treat Suzy's cancer so far, and Paul doesn't regret a penny of it. Squirrels can live up to about two decades in captivity. Suzy is about 10 years old now.
"She accepted me into her life. She's accepted me as her friend," Paul says. "She's going to make it to 20 years, easy."