Downey ran into his kitchen and searched in his cupboards until he’d found some peanuts, then he hurried back to the balcony.
“The squirrel was still sitting in the same spot, so I figured, ‘Okay, he was listening to me,’” he said. “And when I held my hand out with the peanuts, he pulled my hand closer and started eating.”
Downey, who had been feeling low, was enchanted by the encounter.
“I was having a rough time, not because of the pandemic but because of some mental health issues,” Downey said.
Since that day in 2020, the squirrel has continued to scamper up to his balcony for treats, often bringing a friend with him, Downey said. He named the affable pair Richard and Maxine for no particular reason other than he liked the sound of it.
He decided to share a video on TikTok of him interacting with the squirrels. The short clip of him giving Richard and Maxine sips of water from a glass and tenderly telling them not to quarrel has racked up more than 26 million views since it was posted last year.
“Don’t be fighting! Do you want some water? Come here. I know it’s hot — we get agitated, we get aggravated,” Downey tells the squirrels in the clip.
“You’re having a moment — it’s okay to have that moment,” he said.
As he bonded with the squirrels, he started to feel better himself.
“Going outside and connecting with nature was my gateway to relief from depression,” he said. “It brought me peace. I would see Richard walking around, and talking to him made me feel good about the world.”
“Validate their moments and emotions. You’re the best squirrel dad!” someone commented.
Downey replied: “Mental health is important. Gotta make sure they’re good mentally and physically.”
Another person commented, “He’s gentle parenting the squirrels.” And another said, “Bro treats squirrels better than my parents treat me.”
Someone compared him to Snow White. “You’re literally a Disney princess,” another person wrote.
Downey was excited his followers liked the squirrels as much as he did, so he decided to start posting daily videos of Richard and Maxine. In a recent one, he tries to teach Maxine patience as he peels her an avocado.
In another, with a squirrel on his shoulder, he drops wisdom to his furry friend.
“You ain’t always going to have the best of days,” he tells Maxine. “But when life is down and you’re going through a moment, just be still, alright? Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”
His followers replied with comments such as, “Thanks so much because that was EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now!!! Grateful.”
Shortly after his breakout video last year, he went to work building a two-story house with a picket fence for the squirrels, and he encouraged his TikTok followers — now numbering more than 1 million — to get involved.
“I created a squirrel wish list so everyone could help me furnish the house and make it cozy,” Downey said, noting that it wasn’t long before he was swamped with miniature furniture and paintings, a birdbath, holiday decorations and tiny dishes and houseplants.
When Apartment Therapy posted a story about his squirrel-sized home renovations last year, packages started to arrive at a faster clip, he said, noting that his followers began to call him the “Squirrel Whisperer.”
Fans of Richard and Maxine sent him a tiny working television and a fireplace front. Downey added them to the living room in the wee abode so his little friends could watch the Animal Planet and National Geographic channels in comfort via his streaming service.
“They really do seem to enjoy watching TV,” he said. “But more than anything, I’d have to say they like to eat.”
Downey leaves out nuts for the squirrels, and he’ll occasionally give them grapes and small pieces of avocado. He said he’s never been bitten, and his home has never been damaged by the critters, despite some exposed cords on his balcony. Though Newsweek reported earlier this year that Maxine destroyed a rooftop couch and made off with the insides of a pillow.
“Scrub-jays will show up sometimes and try to steal the nuts,” he said, referencing the blue jays that live along the Pacific seaboard. “Then it usually gets a little chaotic.”
Downey said he never imagined he’d join the ranks of the Texas family that built a squirrel a Whataburger shack, the Mississippi woman who rescued baby squirrels and the woman who opened a chipmunk cafe in Atlanta. But he said he’s happy to flow with it.
“It’s bringing people a lot of joy,” he said. “I’ve heard from people all over the world who enjoy watching the videos.”
Now, three years in, his videos attract a community of people who love squirrels, and also are seeking kindness to both animals and humans — just like him.
“This page isn’t about the squirrels really, it’s about the good vibes,” one person wrote on his Instagram.
Just last week, he heard from the family of a fan of his who died after she spent time in hospice. Downey, who had communicated with her before she died, posted a tearful video saying how lucky he felt to have connected with her. His followers responded in kind with big emotions.
“You brought her so much kindness, happiness and love! Truly to the depths of her soul. She left this plane of existence without fear and with a heart full of squirrels,” wrote a follower. “Her transition became even more beautiful because of you, good sir.”
Downey said he didn’t intend to reach so many people with his squirrel videos, he was just following his instincts. He has always loved animals.
When Downey was growing up in Atlanta, he said he always got a kick out of watching squirrels run up and down trees, but he was more taken by the hermit crab that his first-grade teacher kept in her classroom.
“I’d stay inside at recess to watch it, and at the end of the school year, my teacher gifted the hermit crab to me,” he said. “That was my first pet.”
He moved to Los Angeles five years ago and works creating social media content, he said.
“I love connecting with people, and now the squirrels have given me a new outlet for that,” Downey said, noting that he just finished decorating Richard and Maxine’s pad for Halloween.
“Their house is decorated for every holiday — Christmas, Fourth of July, you name it,” he said. “They have more decorations than I do.”
He records every squirrel milestone — including a gender reveal party he held for laughs in January for Maxine’s new litter of five baby kits — so TikTok viewers can follow the drama unfolding each day on his balcony. The tiny squirrels lived in a palm tree for about three months until they were old enough to leave the nest.
“The gender reveal was mainly for giggles,” Downey said, explaining that he didn’t know whether her kittens were male or female.
He didn’t want to get involved with raising her five young ones.
“I didn’t take care of them — I want to keep them wild — but I’m happy if they decide to drop by,” Downey said.
“We’re not sure who is the father of the babies — people have speculated it’s either Richard or Raymond, another squirrel that shows up and takes half the food,” he added. “We’ve nicknamed him Hood Rat Raymond.”
Things got more serious in June when Maxine had another litter, and the kits were in a tree that was trimmed, causing their nest to fall. The workers put the nest in another tree, but Downey thought it wasn’t safe. Downey took them in, cared for them, and then returned them to Maxine.
“Rescuing these baby squirrels and reuniting them with mama Maxine, was the greatest feeling ever!” he wrote on his Instagram page.
Someone responded: “Can somebody just donate you a mansion squirrel sanctuary in the woods already. Take Maxine, Richard and all the Grandsquirrls with you.”
For now, his balcony residents scamper back and forth between the squirrel house and trees in the neighborhood. He said he sees Richard and Maxine almost every day.
“Maxine will perch on my shoulder, and I’ll give her some nuts or avocado and we’ll have this perfect little therapeutic moment,” Downey said.