A nut bowl that sits on the front porch outside Brantley and John Harrison’s home in Greer, South Carolina, is refilled almost daily because of Bella, a grey squirrel that was taken in as a baby by the couple and their two sons eight years ago.
Attacked by an owl, the squirrel was rehabilitated by the Harrisons and released into the wild along with three other rescued squirrels: Larry, Curly and Moe. But while the young male squirrels scurried away into the trees, something different happened with Bella.
To the delight of the Harrisons and 14,000 people who now follow the squirrel’s antics on Instagram, she kept coming back to visit her rescue family.
“We’ve never treated her like a pet, but she’s definitely become a member of the family,” Brantley, 41, a homemaker who volunteers as a rescuer for Wildlife Rehab of Greenville, tells PEOPLE. “She wasn’t treated any differently than the other squirrels, but for some reason, she’s chosen us. If I see her in the neighbor’s yard, I’ll whistle and call her name and she always comes running.”
Whenever Bella comes to visit, adds John, “She’ll wait by the door for somebody to notice, and if nobody comes, she’ll then jump up to the dining room window to look inside. She loves to sit on our laps and eat walnuts, then she’ll bury a few and head back out to a tree in the cul-de-sac, where her nest is.”
Although the Harrisons admit that the topic of affectionate squirrels is a bit of a grey area, “It’s been wonderful to watch this bond develop with Bella,” says John, 41, who works as vice-president of sales for a Greenville County tech firm.
“Because of Brantley, who’s always been an animal lover,” he says, “we’ve rescued all kinds of wildlife, from turtles to snakes. But none of them have had quite the same impact as Bella.”
It was October 2009, when Brantley was asked if she could help rehabilitate Bella, along with three other baby squirrels that had become separated from their mother when their tree was cut down.
She and her two boys, Evans, now 19, and Fox, 12, fed the squirrels formula with an eye dropper and filled a large hamster cage with comfortable bedding. Once the squirrels were old enough to crack nuts, Brantley moved them to a larger cage outside to prepare them for their release into the wild in April 2010.
“Caring for animals has been important to me ever since my grandmother (Mamie Hunt) taught me an appreciation of the natural world as a child,” she tells PEOPLE. “Whenever it rained, my grandmother would have me and my brothers rescue the earthworms off the road so that they wouldn’t get run over. If we saw a caterpillar in the driveway, we’d take it to a safer place. That was just who my grandmother was.”
On April 21, 2010, when Brantley opened the cage door and released the “Three Stooges” and Bella, “I figured I’d never see them again,” she says, “and for Larry, Curly and Moe, that was true. They came back to sleep in the cage for a couple more nights, and then they were gone. But Bella came back to me, looked up at me and let me touch her. I knew it was unusual, but I had no idea that she would keep coming back.”
Five years ago, when Bella showed up with an injured foot, the Harrisons briefly returned her to the outdoor cage for rehabilitation and were surprised one afternoon to discover that she had given birth to three baby squirrels.
“They spent the winter on our back porch,” says Brantley, “then we released them all in the spring. I don’t know what happened to the babies when they grew up, but Bella is still teaching us about the power of compassion and bringing joy. It truly is an honor to have her in our lives.”