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Friends to cats in high places: Canopy Cat Rescue team saves stranded kitties, frantic pet-owners
Forget what you think you know about cats getting stuck in trees, and just ask the experts. They’re the guys in climbing gear, not uniforms, and here in the Snoqualmie Valley, they’re probably named Shaun and Tom.
More formally, Shaun Sears of North Bend and Tom Otto of Olympia, brothers-in-law for all practical purposes, are Canopy Cat Rescue and Conservation, LLC, (www.canopycatrescue.com) a non-profit organization devoted to rescuing cats stuck in trees. They are also, a little to their own surprise, authorities on the subject.
“I guess we are becoming cat experts,” Sears admitted. “We learn a little bit more about cat behavior every time we go on a call.”
The two have rescued hundreds of cats in the past few years, from trees mainly, but also from utility poles and other high places. Since they’re both professional climbers — Sears has been a mountain guide at Mount Rainer for 11 years, and Otto is an arborist for Olympia and other government agencies and both have built osprey nesting platforms and installed Web cams for Watchable Wildlife — they have the gear, ability, and know-how to do it more safely than the people you might think to call first.
They also have the interest. Both have their own cats (dogs, too), and they hate to turn down any call for help, because there aren’t many options for cat owners in need.
“Most fire departments won’t do rescues,” said Sears, nor will most animal control departments, which usually refer people to arborists on such websites as Cat in a Tree (www2.catinatreerescue.com) or MEOW Cat Rescue (www.meowcatrescue.org/resources/articles/18/cat-stuck-in-a-tree). Sears and Otto are listed there, too.
As they see it, any call they turn down is a cat stuck in a tree somewhere. A vivid, but awful, illustration of that for both of them was the story of a cat stranded for 15 days, more than 100 feet up a tree. His owner, suffering from a medical condition, had called other nearby agencies for help, but she couldn’t afford their fees.
“The cat was forced to stay in a tree (because) people wouldn’t work with her,” said Sears, frustrated. That was before a friend returned from a trip and told her about Canopy Cat.
Otto, who climbed up the tree to rescue the weakened cat, was rewarded with a view of the especially touching cat-owner reunion. “You could tell it wasn’t about her neglecting the cat,” he said. Most rescues are like that, “People are crying and it’s very emotional.”
Canopy Cat used to charge a flat fee for rescues, but it’s funded entirely by donations these days. When asked how they can afford to do the job sometimes, Otto responds, “How can we afford not to?”
“We don’t want to make money off other people’s misfortunes,” added Sears.
Another question they get a lot of, Otto said, is along the lines of “why bother?” Most people believe a cat will come down when it gets hungry enough, but that’s not true in his experience.
“They don’t seem to care about eating,” he said.
The advice offered by most people and agencies, to put food at the base of the tree and call to them, is generally ineffective, for another reason, as well.
“Cats are near-sighted,” says Sears, and Otto confirms that often, a treed cat will ignore them as they climb up, responding to them only when they’re within a few feet. “They don’t quite pick us up, until we get within a certain range,” he said.
Poor vision, plus whatever sent them up the tree in the first place — usually a threat from a dog or raccoon or coyote — will keep a terrified cat in a tree no matter how hungry it is.
“Odds are, not only can they not see to the base of the tree, but they’re also assuming that whatever chased them up the tree… is still at the base of the tree,” Sears said. “I liken it to being stuck on a rock face the other day, and smelling pizza down below… They can’t see, and somebody is shouting at them, taunting them with food.”
Conventional wisdom also states that cats can get down by themselves, but there are limits to that.
“We’ve had a vet tell us cats are really good at going up,” said Sears. And scared cats will continue to go up, even away from their rescuers, until they feel safe. Coming back down is a very literal undertaking, though. Cats’ claws are ideal for travel in one direction, the one that keeps their heads up, so descending means they have to go backwards down the tree, until they can see the ground, when they usually jump, Otto said.
Cats will sometimes jump out of Sears’ or Ottos’ arms when they can see the ground, too, but often, the cats are content to stay with their rescuers until they see a familiar face. By the time they have the cats, our heroes have usually invested quite a bit of time in learning about the animals from the owners, and in gaining the cats’ trust.
If the cat is feral or not known by the callers — about one in five calls is from someone who just heard a cat screaming for help — Sears and Otto will have a net ready to hold it, and sometimes even to catch it if it decides to jump, for the ride down.
Otherwise, “After a few pets, they’ll relax,” said Sears. “Then we just pick them up like a normal cat, or scruff them. We might put them in the bag if they’re fighting, or just descend with them in our arms.”
“We set things up beforehand to operate one-handed,” added Otto.
After re-uniting the cat with its people, the guys typically pack up all their ropes and gear, then head home to post the picture and information about their latest rescue to their Facebook site. For the kitties who don’t have homes, they also post a plea for potential new owners, so far with 100 percent success.
On beautiful, sunny days, climbing trees for a living sounds like a pretty good gig, and they both agree it is. They also like it on the rainy, blustery days and nights, which are often when cats need rescuing, because they’d rather be up in a tree then, than to have someone inexperienced try their own rescue.
“The most scared I’ve ever been has been up on a ladder,” Sears said.
So, trust the experts, and call them at (253) 324-0524, or (360) 239-8982, sooner than later for your stranded kitty. Everyone will be happier for it.
Dos and don’ts for cats in trees
Do call an expert.
Don’t call the fire department or police; they typically won’t commit resources that might be needed in a bigger emergency.
Do call soon. Cats can survive several days, but the longer you wait, the weaker they get, increasing their risk of falling.
Don’t spray the cat with water to force it down; it will only climb higher.
Do keep your cats’ claws trimmed. If your cat spends any time outdoors, don’t declaw it.
Do give your cat safe place to retreat from dogs and other threats, without having to climb a tree.
Don’t give up on finding a lost cat. Do look up, because it might be in a tree.
Why won't they rescue Kitty?
Officially, most fire departments don't rescue cats in trees.
"The real rationale is if we got involved and then a major emergency came up, it could delay our response time," said North Bend Fire Department Captain Mark Ashburn.
Unofficially, "We try to really be a community service-based fire department," he says.
Ashburn, a firefighter for 29 years, can recall the days of turning out for kitties in need, but says, "The fire service has changed so much over the years. We used to do a lot of things that for legalities and liability reasons, nowadays you just don't do."
So these days, they'll help out distressed pet owners by referring them to a service like Canopy Cat Rescue. Those trained arborists are much better equipped for the job, anyway.
"We have limitations, too, just on the length of the ladder… a 35-foot ground ladder is the tallest we carry on the trucks," said Ashburn.
For the same reasons, Regional Animal Services of King County recommends calling a tree service. "They have specialized equipment (like aerial bucket trucks) and training to get up into the tree canopy," explained King County spokesperson Cameron Satterfield.
Still, North Bend's station gets three or four calls about cats in trees each year, and RASKC, which, to Satterfield's knowledge, has never actually rescued cats from trees, received a few calls each month, and more in the summer.
Top, with his climbing gear rigged to operate one-handed, Tom Otto can hold a distressed kitty in his arms while descending a tree. This cat needed rescuing twice already this year.
Above, a cute kitten rescued in Seatac, and posted on Canopy Cat Rescue's Facebook page.
Below, Tom Otto of Canopy Cat Rescue lets the cat nuzzle him and get used to him before attempting to carry him down the tree.
Second from bottom, Tigger, rescued Jan. 24.
Bottom, snuggled inside Shaun Sears' jacket, Stash seems content to stay put for a descent down the tree he was stranded in.