Scott Diehl and Laura Stastny have never met. They’re separated by 500 miles, the distance between Milwaukee and Omaha. And yet they have a unique connection. In 2018, the two wildlife rehabilitators gained international fame for performing the identical feat: successfully untangling knotted balls of baby squirrels.
“We get all sorts of animals in all sorts of predicaments,” said Diehl, wildlife director at the Wisconsin Humane Society. “We get calls about skunks with yogurt cups stuck on their heads or a deer with its antlers stuck in a soccer net.”
What greeted Diehl when he opened the pet carrier that arrived one afternoon last September was “a little whirling tangle of fur.”
Five baby Eastern gray squirrels had been found stumbling around the grounds of a Milwaukee apartment complex with their tails tied together. This predicament was not caused by human pranksters, but was the unfortunate result of a tree squirrel’s domestic architecture and the dynamics of juvenile squirrels.
A squirrel’s nest — or drey — is often a small chamber in the hollow of a tree. The mother lines the inside with grass. This particular squirrel mom had used long strands of dried grass, along with fibers pulled from something like an old seed bag.
“The five babies are crawling all over each other and under each other, snuggled into a little ball of space,” Diehl said.
The grass, fibers and tails became a veritable Gordian knot.
When the quintet came in, Diehl saw that the squirrels were agitated.
“If one went in one direction they’d pull everyone else,” he said. “They were pulling in five directions at once.”
He decided to sedate the squirrels, injecting each with a tiny amount of what rehabilitators call “pre-mix”: a combination of the drugs ketamine and xylazine. With the squirrels zonked out and resting on a heating pad, Diehl used fine, sharp-pointed scissors to snip away at the tangle of hair and nest material.
It took about 20 minutes to separate the squirrels.
“It was like untangling a ball of Christmas lights,” Diehl said.
Laura Stastny’s procedure last May took a bit longer: Ninety minutes. But the executive director of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab was working alone. And she had an additional squirrel: six juvenile fox squirrels in total. And the squirrels were awake.
“Ideally I would have gotten one of the veterinarians to lightly sedate them,” she said, “but it was late at night, and I didn’t have that option.”
The squirrels were found in Elkhorn, a suburb of Omaha. They had come from a nest in a pine tree. Their tails had become sticky with pine sap, then got knotted together as the squirrels roistered around.
At the wildlife center, Stastny covered the scrambling sextet with a towel to keep them calm.
“I had them wrapped like a squirrel burrito,” she said. “That protected me from bites.”
She exposed their tangled tails and got to work.
“It was like I was untying knots in shoelaces,” she said. “Starting at the tips, I worked all of the knots out of their tails.”
Both tail tales went viral. Stastny’s story was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers as far away as Britain and Germany. She was contacted by a French children’s magazine.
The Wisconsin squirrels went international, too. They were featured on the German quiz show “Wer weiss denn sowas?” (“Who knew?”). The European Board of Veterinary Specialization asked to use photos of the five tangled siblings in veterinary examinations. The squirrels even inspired a skit on Conan O’Brien’s show. (In it, five members of his crew get their ponytails tangled.)
All 11 of the squirrels survived their encounters, but they did not emerge totally unscathed.
“The issue with these guys is, if they’re tied together long enough they lose circulation in the tips of their tails,” said Stastny. “They usually end up losing some portion.”
Five of the six Nebraska squirrels had from a quarter to half of their tails amputated. Three of the Wisconsin squirrels also lost some portion of their tails.
But not to worry: “They can survive without a tail,” said Diehl. Both sets of squirrels were released after they’d recovered.
Stastny and Diehl both said they’d untangled baby squirrels before, but never did they receive such attention afterward.
“Someone might say, ‘Why care? Squirrels are abundant, even a nuisance,’ ” Diehl said. “For us, it all goes back to our mission. The mission of the Wisconsin Humane Society is to build a community that values animals and treats them with respect and kindness.”
Tomorrow: Squirrel Week continues with the winners of the 2019 Squirrel Photography Contest.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.