British wildlife photographer turned professional after 15-second clip went viral

As an amateur wildlife photographer, Dani Connor was always interested in what an animal looked like. The irony is that what made her famous - and turned her from amateur to professional - was what an animal sounds like.

That animal was a squirrel.

A 7-week-old red squirrel, to be precise. Last year, Connor recorded it with a camera and a microphone in a forest in Sweden. As it nibbled on sunflower seeds that it turned in its little paws like tiny ears of corn, the squirrel emitted squeaks, grunts and burps that quite possibly exceed the recommended daily allowance of cute.

Since Connor posted the video - just 15 seconds long - on Twitter in June, it has been viewed there 16 million times, garnered 800,000 likes and been shared by more than 200,000 people. On YouTube, it has 367,000 views.

"I didn't expect it at all," Connor said of the viral response.

Never underestimate the power of a squirrel. It certainly changed Connor's life.

Connor became interested in photography when she took pictures of her dog, Ashley, while walking around her English hometown of Wimbledon. She studied zoology in college and did fieldwork with spider monkeys in Costa Rica.

Last year, Connor volunteered with nature photographer Conny Lundström, who maintains blinds in northern Sweden that allow wildlife photographers to get close to golden eagles. While others were training their lenses on eagles, Connor was focused on the squirrels that live in an old-growth forest nearby, visiting them every day.

"You start to notice who's a bit bigger or smaller, darker or more red," she said. "Especially when they lost their winter coats, you could tell who was male and who was female."

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Connor found herself marooned in Sweden.

"I just focused on wildlife photography, every day taking photos, sharing them and making more videos," she said.

Connor called one of the female squirrels Remy - for the character in "Ratatouille" - and was chagrined when she found her dead by the side of the road, apparently killed by a logging truck. She took Remy to the forest and laid her body in a patch of flowers. The photo she posted - Remy in repose in a patch of dandelions - has the feel of a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

It turned out that Remy was a mother. Worried that her babies would not survive, Connor visited the forest to bring them seeds and nuts. Soon, she was able to call them from the trees. She named them Baby Pear, Baby Moomin, Cheburashka and Little Flame.

"I knew I wanted to make a film about them," Connor said. "I was filming every aspect I could, and the one thing I was missing was the noise. I could always hear it."

To Connor, the burbling squeak was squirrel for: This is good. We like this.

The internal microphone on her camera could not pick it up, so she added a clunky external mic and began recording. She posted a snippet online and watched in amazement as it exploded.

"Celebrities were retweeting it," she said. "I think my biggest was John Boyega from Star Wars."

Connor - @daniconnorwild on social media - set up a Patreon account. Its varying levels of membership give subscribers early and exclusive content, including high-resolution animal photos for phone and computer backgrounds.

"Now, wildlife photography is sort of my full-time career," she said.

Last month, Connor posted a 30-minute documentary on YouTube called "I rescued four baby red squirrels." It has been viewed nearly 600,000 times.

Why have so many people found squirrels so appealing?

"I think any baby mammal would have gotten a very similar response, but I think squirrels in particular were popular because so many people have their own squirrels who visit their bird feeder every day," she said. "They develop their own relationships with individual squirrels. Or we can go to a park and see them quite close."

For Connor, there's a risk that squirrels may become an albatross.

"It's a bit annoying," she said with a laugh. "I will post a photo of a really cool eagle or a fox and get half the engagement of any squirrel post. But that's fine. I like squirrels, too."

When I spoke with Connor on Zoom, she was in central Mexico, where among the animals she is photographing are ground squirrels.

"The next big thing is to protect that forest in Sweden," she said. It's near a tiny village called Kalvträsk. The trees are in danger of being harvested. Connor wants to use her fame to launch a fundraiser to save the forest.

So this summer, she'll be returning to the woods - and to the squirrels.