What a Tangled Web a Few Squirrels' Tails Can Weave

squirrel king
Squirrels, like these five found in Wisconsin, can get tangled when they're in the nest. Unfortunately, if nobody intercedes, they usually die. Wisconsin Humane Society

You might have seen this totally twisted story in the news: A scurry of five squirrels — young brothers and sisters — became tangled together by their tails. It was a so-called "squirrel king," according to several headlines. The phrase "squirrel king" is a variation of "rat king," which is a thing, too.

An unidentified person found the tiny squirrels and took them to the Wisconsin Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee. Vets anesthetized them and performed a delicate procedure to untangle the tails, and remove the "long-stemmed grasses and strips of plastic their mother had used as nest material," according to the center's Facebook post.


squirrel king
Luckily for these siblings, the Wisconsin Humane Society was able to perform a delicate procedure to untangle their tails.
Wisconsin Humane Society

"We're happy to report that all five squirrels are now very active and vigorous, happily eating all that we've offered, including nuts, seeds and fruit," the post reads. "We're still watching their tails for potential necrosis, but at this point, we hope and expect they will all make full recoveries and will then be released into the wild."

As curious as this story might seem to some, squirrel entanglements happen. In fact, six baby squirrels became tied together by their tails in Nebraska in May 2018. In May of 2017, four Bangor, Maine, squirrels suffered through a similar experience until a Good Samaritan trapped them and untangled them himself.

But the most pressing question is how does this happen? How do animals tie themselves up in knots?

While each individual "tale" varies, it generally involves:

  • Animals that live in close quarters. Young squirrels live in small nests, and they pile on each other, squirm around, and, well, tails twist.
  • A second (or third) "binding" substance. The Wisconsin squirrels inadvertently got tied up with the aid of nesting material. Pine sap, meanwhile, seems to have encouraged the creation of the Nebraska "squirrel king."

Regardless, the experience is unpleasant for the squirrels. Can you imagine being tied to your brother or sister all day and night? Despite the happy endings for the kids above, if "squirrel kings" are not separated, the squirrels likely die. And that sucks.