Center Street resident goes nuts for squirrels

In one photo, a squirrel named Julica poses in front of a gray background holding a camera and framing the perfect shot. In others, her bushy-tailed friends rock out on a guitar, balance on a trapeze hoop and shoot a basketball. 

It’s all the work of engineer and local squirrel enthusiast Carlos Bueno, who has dedicated his home and time to the little critters in his neighborhood, challenging their intelligence and showcasing their quirkiness. 

“I’m always trying to create something new to see how smart they are,” he says. 

Bueno has loved photography and animals for years, which has led him to transform his home into a hub of creativity. Every inch of his patio is a safe space for birds, squirrels and even mice. There is everything from a fountain to a “squirrel bar,” which is what he calls his customized feeder. (He also calls the power lines in front of his house “the squirrel highway.”)

Squirrel Bar in front of Bueno’s home (Photo by Nathaly Dominguez) 

Bueno, 72, was raised in Rio de Janeiro surrounded by animals and wildlife. He recalls owning a pet marmoset named Sofia during his teen years. 

“She was jealous,” he comments about Sofia. “I used to take her to school but if my girlfriend got close, she’d bite her.” 

There were also parrots, a toucan and a rooster. It makes sense that Bueno likes to keep trinkets and figurines of animals throughout his home; from a rabbit statue peeking in through the window to a garden snake hiding in the corner of the guest bathroom. 

He moved to Miami in 1992, then bought a house in Coconut Grove in 2005, before moving for five years to South Africa. There, he worked on a construction project near Kruger Park, the famous wildlife preserve, and met his wife, Karina. He also took photos of lions, elephants, gazelles and so much more. The park has very strict rules for guests, and Bueno twice landed himself in hot water. 

“We got offroad because no animals are going to be on the main road,” he laughs, “Then I was in trouble because I was driving and I shouted, ‘Karina! Open the window!’ But we weren’t supposed to open the windows.”

Then they spent three years in Brazil before moving back into his house on Center Street in the Grove in 2017. He wanted to continue taking pictures of local fauna, which led him to set up bird feeders on his patio. 

But they were quickly taken over by squirrels and that piqued his interest. Soon,  it was impossible to stop him from creating photo-ops and contraptions to capture images of the little rodents doing human activities. 

“One winter, we were outside so we could see the squirrels all around,” says Karina. “We put the peanuts on the outdoor furniture, and they just started coming.”

Julica’s friend, Xuco playing the guitar (Photo by Carlos Bueno) 

The more the squirrels got comfortable, the more creative he became. He drilled a hole into the wall by his window, and began slowly enticing them to enter his house.

Bueno likes to incorporate themes into his squirrel photography as it allows him to create challenges for the little critters. One of his photoshoots was circus-themed. He had his regular, Julica, climb onto a trapeze hoop to reach the food dangling above. 

Julica on trapeze hoop (Photo by Carlos Bueno)

The setup for these shoots can be quite complex, considering he does not photoshop his images and needs to get creative in order to pose the squirrels. 

There is one photo where it looks as though a squirrel is shooting a basketball. The secret to that shot was that Bueno had two nuts, one hanging above the squirrel’s head, and another swinging back and forth to make it seem like the squirrel was shooting the basketball.

Squirrels shooting a basketball (Photo by Carlos Bueno)

Shots like this take a bit more effort as some can be as simple as putting peanut butter on a camera, which is how Bueno got Julica to pose as a photographer, or dangling a single nut above their head, as seen in the guitar image. 

Bueno drills holes into nuts and ties them to a pipe frame above the backdrop so that they dangle above the squirrel’s heads, waiting to take the perfect shot. This is the method that Bueno uses for most of his photos of the little creatures. Julica is particularly fond of hazelnuts, he says. 

“I had a little camera and I put peanut butter on it then dangled it,” he says. “It took over 100 shots to get that one picture.”

Julica posing as a photographer (Photo by Carlos Bueno)

In addition to buying small props, backdrops and lighting, Bueno also has a motion trigger that will set off a camera that takes hundreds of photographs of the squirrels, usually resulting in one or two that tell his intended story.

“Wildlife photography, it’s hard,” he says. “Most of the time you’re just sitting there for hours waiting.” 

Like many other nature photographers, Bueno has dreams of fame and fortune. 

“It would be nice to have [a gallery], collect and organize everything, especially in the Grove,” he says, “I think it would be interesting.”

FIU students Lenny St. Remy and Nathaly Dominguez wrote this story as part of a cooperative agreement between FIU’s Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media and the Spotlight. Click here to read the original article published in the Spotlight.

Lenny St. Remy is a junior at Florida International University majoring in digital journalism. He aims to combine his passion for sports and writing to excel in sports journalism after graduating.

Nathaly Dominguez is a junior majoring in journalism with a passion for the performing arts. After her studies, she wishes to pursue a career in entertainment media, allowing her to dissect pop-culture at the professional level.