The tangled knot binding together the tails of five young squirrels was formidable — and life-threatening, according to wildlife rescuers.
A mess of long grass, strips of plastic bag and other human-made materials held the knot in place, and made it impossible to tell which tail belonged to which squirrel, rescuers said. The squirrels’ mother had dragged those materials into the soccer ball-sized nest she built for her young in Franklin, Wisconsin.
“In this confined space ... I think these long stems of grasses and strips of plastic entwined them,” Scott Diehl, wildlife director at the Wisconsin Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, explained in a phone interview. “I think they had been tangled up for quite some time.”
A woman at a suburban Milwaukee apartment discovered the knotted-up critters Thursday morning and decided to do something, Diehl said. The gray squirrels, all of them siblings, were only several weeks old.
After calling the humane society, the woman got someone associated with her apartment complex to put the little animals in a newspaper-lined animal carrier so the squirrels could be transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Those who brought the squirrels to the rehabilitation center said the animals’ mother had been “trying to help them out” when the human rescuers stepped in, Diehl said.
Once the animals were brought in, Diehl and two others began working on disentangling their swollen, abraded tails. The animals had tissue damage and poor circulation from the extremely tight knot, rescuers said.
But first, the critters had to be put under because they were “a little nippy” and scared of humans, Diehl said.
“These are squirrels old enough to understand that humans are to be treated like a potential threat,” Diehl said.
Now anesthetized, the squirrels were put on heating pads to keep them warm.
“Then it was really just starting to pull on some of the things in this knot: ‘Well that’s a tail, better not pull on that. That’s plastic, snip on that with a scissors,’ ” Diehl said, describing the painstaking process he and two others undertook.
After about 20 minutes, the first tail came loose.
“The others came quickly after that,” Diehl said.
Still, the squirrels aren’t ready to return to their mother in the wild just yet — and there could still be medical problems in their future. Two of the squirrels are carrying their tails limply, Diehl said. As for the three others? Diehl described them as “bushy-tailed.”
All of them will be watched for several days to make sure there are no complications.
Rescuers said that, had the squirrels not been all tangled up, they likely would have already been weaned from their mother by now.
On Facebook, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center wrote that the squirrels would likely have lost their tails or died had human bystanders not intervened.
Rescuers described the tightly-wound tangle as a “Gordian knot” — a term used to describe an extremely complicated, and seemingly unsolvable problem. It alludes to a Phrygian king named Gordius, who created a knot that could only be untied by the future ruler of Asia, and which Alexander the Great ultimately cut with a sword, according to Merriam-Webster.
The squirrels probably wouldn’t argue with that characterization, given how rough it must have been in the wild for “five young, high-energy squirrels all trying to go in different directions,” Diehl said.
“I don’t think there was much controlled movement of any kind,” Diehl said. “I think they were just kind of tumbling around — not able to climb a tree, certainly.”
Diehl said he’s seen two or even three squirrels get their tails knotted together, but in his decades of work he said he’s “never seen five, or even four.”