Squirrel King: Five Creatures Tied Together by Their Own Tails Discovered in Wisconsin

Five hapless squirrel siblings have been caught in quite the bind in Wisconsin. Their fluffy tails became "hopelessly entangled" in their nest, leaving their fur tied together and matted with grass and plastic.

Luckily for the juvenile creatures, the local Humane Society's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center was on hand to unwind the impossible knot.

The team anesthetized the squirrels to keep them still and slowly unraveled the tails. According to the center's Facebook page, it took about 20 minutes of careful cutting to disentangle the ball of fur. Initially, the center stated, it was impossible to tell where one tail began and another ended.

"Bit by bit we snipped away at the grass-and-plastic knot with scissors, being very careful to make sure we weren't snipping anyone's tail in the process," the post said. "We were increasingly concerned because all of them had suffered from varying degrees of tissue damage to their tails caused by circulatory impairment."

Although it's pretty rare to see a group of animals entangled by their tails, "squirrel kings" have been reported before. The tails of six baby squirrels became matted together in Elkhorn, Nebraska, Gizmodo stated back in May, for example.

"The squirrels weren't moving in unison, they all wanted to go in opposite directions," Craig Luttman, who found the squirrels and called in the Nebraska Humane Society, said at the time. "It was like a game of tug-of-war. They looked tired and stressed out, and I figured they weren't gonna make it—they were gonna die."

Nebraska Wildlife Rehab's Laura Stastny was able to separate the tails after about an hour of careful pruning.

The tails of five squirrels are matted into one ball of fur, grass, and plastic from their nest. Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Wisconsin Humane Society

The Milwaukee-based Wildlife Rehabilitation Center's Facebook post compared the latest ball of tangled tails to a "Gordian Knot." According to legend, Alexander the Great tried to untangle an impossible knot tying an ox cart to a post in Gordium, Phrygian—now in Turkey. Whoever succeeded was destined to one day rule Asia, an oracle had declared.

Unable to untie the knot by hand, legend has it Alexander simply sliced through it with a sword. How the knot was loosened, he said, made no difference to the outcome. Although scholars are still debating exactly how he loosened the cord, Alexander went on to conquer much of ancient Asia.

Although they are less common—and may not even exist—balls of tail-tied "rat kings" are an enduring urban legend. With historical roots in German fokelore, rare examples of the raveled rodents lie pickled in natural history museums around the world. But it's hard to know if they became tangled by their own misadventure or by human intervention.

Even though they're called "kings," rat expert Kevin Rowe of Museum Victoria in Australia told Atlas Obscura back in 2016 that, if they existed, the creatures would hardly be living in the lap of luxury. "Rodents stuck together could not survive long and are probably in agony and distress until they separate or die… A 'rat king' would be a horrible ball of animal suffering; nothing about it evokes a sense of kingship."