Hisham “Sham” Othman’s unique hobby of making hats for squirrels and then photographing them has attracted national attention after one of the Brier resident’s photos was selected for inclusion in the Washington Post’s “Squirrel Week” photography contest.
Othman, who works in finance, said he first started crafting the squirrel headwear and taking photos in May 2020 after a lengthy stint at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. He had been putting peanuts out on his deck for a female squirrel, and she began briefly venturing inside to take them off a windowsill when the window was left open. That led to him wondering, “How far can I push this and what can I do next?” Hand feeding her snacks was easy, and she even took a peanut from his mouth.
Then Othman gave the squirrel some peanut butter on a spoon. “She really enjoyed that, and that was when we could first pet her,” Othman said. Soon after, the squirrel — which Othman’s family had named Sandy — got more comfortable around them. The idea for headwear came when Othman saw some hats on toys his two children have. Some were small enough to work as squirrel hats, and Othman was able to place them gently on Sandy’s head while she ate peanuts. Othman soon found himself using his phone to photograph Sandy in various headwear fashions.
But he quickly exhausted options readily available at home, “Essentially I ran out of toy hats,” he said. “I needed more, and I wasn’t about to go out and start shopping for miniature hats.” Othman then found different types of designs online, shrunk them down to a size appropriate for a squirrel’s head and fired up his 3D printer. He also refined his technique and began to attach a small piece of painter’s tape to the bottom of each hat instead of relying solely on Sandy to balance them on top of her head.
“That did the trick, and she didn’t mind it,” he said of the tape’s mild adhesive qualities. Othman was then able to spend more time photographing Sandy in the hats rather than having to pick them up since they stayed on through various types of movements. “And from there it was basically like, what hats can I put on,” he added.
By last fall, a one-eyed squirrel the family named Ms. Winky had replaced Sandy in the backyard photo shoots. Othman said he was prepared, after cranking out “a ton of 3D (printed) hats.” He noted he had “built a little catalogue of them for fun” and was able to compile a fashion portfolio of her wearing the new, 16-piece collection.
Othman crowd-sourced ideas online for different types of hats to feature and said he also uses acrylic paints to add flair, “because I found that they were a little boring with just one color.” There are holiday-themed ones, occupation-specific types of headwear such as construction and fire helmets, and several from well-known fictional characters depicted in popular culture.
He first learned about the Washington Post’s annual squirrel photo contest last year but it was too late to enter. After waiting 11 months, this spring Othman was ready. With a bunch of photos for consideration, he ultimately decided on wife Anna’s favorite — Ms. Winky sporting a “Cat in the Hat”-inspired look.
And since many people assume he must use photo editing software to get the pictures, Othman also included in his entry the links to his personal online photo galleries that feature Sandy and Ms. Winky.
Shortly thereafter, Othman received an email from the newspaper notifying him that while he didn’t win the top prize, his image was still appreciated enough to warrant inclusion in its online photo gallery showcasing this year’s favorite submissions.“This is the highlight of my year: All that work — basically 11 months of squirreliness around our house — and it pays off,” he said.
He has enjoyed sharing his squirrel photos on social media and said people check in regularly to see what type of hat the animal will be wearing next. He said his effort was aimed at providing a distraction and “something else to brighten spirits” during the past year.
The photography project has also helped him “forget about all the stresses of work or whatever’s going on in the world,” he said. “You’re just out there petting a squirrel and letting it eat peanuts from your hand and just watching it and, you know, pop a hat on its head,” he added while laughing.
Othman hasn’t seen either Sandy or Ms. Winky around since last year. Although some squirrels now in Othman’s backyard will let him hand feed them, none have yet displayed the personal comfort level or fashion-forward sense for hats that the other two possessed. “I’m working on it,” he said. If nothing else develops, “I’m happy with what happened,” Othman added.
And if some new squirrel modeling talents emerge, he’s already got a list of ideas for more hats to make. Those include the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Seahawks, additional holiday-themed pieces such as a heart-shaped one and a Leprechaun-inspired top hat, and a bycocket-style hat like that associated with the character Robin Hood.
He noted that “somebody even asked for a banana-themed hat.” That’s related to the Brier community’s ongoing joke about a banana shortage during a snowstorm — and also since Othman himself has been known to wear a banana costume to local events.
— By Nathan Blackwell