As It Happens

How to solve a 'Gordian Knot' of rodent tails — and rescue five clumsy squirrels

The Wisconsin Humane Society untied the tails of five young squirrels that somehow managed to become entangled in what's been described as a rodent "Gordian Knot."

Wisconsin Humane Society unravelled a quintet of squirrel siblings who got their tails tangled

The five squirrels were given an anesthesia before their tails were untied. (Wisconsin Humane Society)

Five juvenile grey squirrels were recently found in Wisconsin with their tails tangled together in a bushy mess described as a rodent "Gordian Knot."   

After a painstaking procedure, they have been freed. Now they're bright-eyed, but somewhat less bushy-tailed. 

Crystal Sharlow-Schaefer is the supervisor of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, part of the Wisconsin Humane Society. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the quintet of squirrels and how they are recovering after being untangled.

Here is part of their conversation.

Crystal, when you first saw this little bundle of fur, what did you make of it?

It was quite the little bundle of squirrels, for sure. When the finder had brought them into us, they originally told us that there were four squirrels. So once we actually got them in the exam room, and started doing our work, we realized there were five. 

A close-up of the knotted tails. (Wisconsin Humane Society)

And how were they responding? 

These poor little kids were really stressed, really uncomfortable. Their tails were just hopelessly entwined and they were a bit nippy. So we made sure to have protective gloves on before we were able to safely sedate them all to start our work.

You called it a "Gordian Knot." Why did you use that description?

That's exactly what it was. It was an impossible situation, at first glance. You couldn't even tell whose tail was whose. Where to even begin. So because we had the tool of sedation that was extremely helpful for us to begin cutting away some of that debris and just starting to figure out how to free those little guys.

After the squirrels were successfully untangled from one another. (Wisconsin Humane Society)

How did five squirrels get their tails all in such a twist?

So these are juvenile squirrels. For grey squirrels, they are born in a nest, usually elevated in a tree. The mother will build her nest out of all sorts of generally natural material — so that would be leaves and grasses and brush and things like that. But urban squirrels have been really adapted to utilizing all sorts of materials, including bits of fabric and plastic pieces and all sorts of things like that that they think would make a nice nest.

And so, if you can think of five babies, all in this little borrow, this little bundle of material. They just were moving around in there and their tails just got entangled with the debris that was there. So there definitely was some plastic and that, I think, really started it off.

But they weren't babies. They were juveniles. So this had been the situation for them for a period of time then?

Right. We don't know exactly how long they were entangled. We estimate them, from their development, to be about five to six weeks old. So we're unsure of when this started, but it definitely was there for a while, due to the significant knotting as well as the level of tissue damage that they each have on their tail.

Crystal Sharlow-Schaefer holding one of the squirrels. (Wisconsin Humane Society)

How were you able to help them?

Once they were in and we were able to sedate them, we started from each squirrel rump and worked our way down. We used scissors to gently cut some of that debris. Because, honestly, you could not tell which tip tail belonged to whom. We just made sure to slowly work our way there and be really cautious not to cut any tissue, obviously. It was about 20 minutes work.

This one was still a bit groggy, but happy to be free from its four siblings. (Wisconsin Humane Society)

And when will you release these juveniles back into the wild then?

We'll want to continue to monitor them until we are absolutely sure that their abrasions and wounds are fully healed. We'll also want to wait for the rest of the fur to grow back, which we fully anticipate will. And then, because they are juveniles, they're a little bit delayed now. They haven't been able to run around and jump around like normal squirrels. So it's been really cool to watch them develop those skills. But we anticipate a few weeks, at least. But we are very hopeful that they will make a full recovery.

Written by Ashley Mak and John McGill. Produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.