After 39 years traveling the country to put on shows featuring squirrels on water skis, Lou Ann Best of Sanford, Florida, is calling it quits. That means the Suncoast Boat Show, which takes place in downtown Sarasota this Friday through Sunday, might just be your last chance to see Twiggy, Best's famous skiing squirrel, do her thing.
"I'm getting older and I've got a bunch of herniated discs," Best says. "Doing the equipment side of it is getting more difficult and I have trouble driving for long distances, so I decided I'm going to hang it up." Best estimates she spends about half the year on the road, hitting up almost two dozen sports and boating shows a year, in between bouts of training squirrels to perform as Twiggy. (There have been multiple Twiggy squirrels; the one traveling to Sarasota this weekend is Twiggy No. 7.)
The show began when Best and her husband, Chuck Best, found a baby squirrel blown out of her nest after a rainstorm near a roller skating rink the couple owned. Training her to water-ski started as a joke, but Chuck took it as a challenge. Local news stories about a water-skiing squirrel named Twiggy led national media outlets to come calling, and the Bests' phone started ringing with promoters asking them to take the show on the road. Twiggy has appeared in comedies like Anchorman and DodgeBall, as well as on daytime and late-night TV and in ads, and was featured in a Brad Paisley music video.
Training a squirrel takes about a year, Best says: "It's like training a husband. You give them a lot of love and affection and tell them the same thing over and over." Best works to acclimate the rodents to the noise of crowds and helps them learn to stand on the skis. A small radio-controlled boat then pulls them around a small pool.
Originally a Twiggy gig was just a "cute little show," Best says, but for the past two decades the performances have had a more serious purpose. Chuck drowned in 1997 after having a heart attack while trying to rescue his stepfather, who couldn't swim, after he fell in Florida's Wekiva River.
Best considered retiring then, but the next year decided to use the shows as a way to teach attendees about safety around water. With Twiggy, she talks about the importance of wearing a life jacket and learning how to float and swim. Kids and adults alike have come up to her after shows and thanked her for the message and shared their own stories of accidents and near-drownings.
"I believe with all my heart and soul that this was meant to be. The Lord put this together," Best says. "I know Twiggy has saved someone's life, and probably many lives."
Twiggy performs at the Suncoast Boat Show at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, and at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 22. The event takes place at Marina Jack, 2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota. Tickets are $15 for adults and free for kids under 15.