Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Cat, a Pine Tree, and a Christmas Wish

Christmas miracles come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Some are furry. And some involve men with bucket trucks.

Before we get to that, let’s just establish that I don’t consider myself a cat person. I’ve even been known to poke fun at friends who use Facebook as their cat’s personal online photo diary.

Growing up, my family always had cats and dogs, and I always leaned toward the barking variety – in part because I found them more manageable and thus more easily loved. Don’t get me wrong, I adore kittens, with their rambunctious playfulness. But the aloofness of older cats always struck me as a less than desirable trait for pets or companions -- though it’s a quality I can also admire.

So it was with great trepidation that my wife and I finally caved last fall and brought a kitten into our family’s world. Our four kids had been bugging us for a kitty for a while, to go along with the family dog and various fish.

We found one through the local cat rescue group, the CNY Cat Coalition, and their program at PetSmart. I was the one who wandered alone into the coalition’s corner of the store one fall day wondering if they had any kittens to adopt. I found mostly older cats and just one pair of older kittens – sisters Luna and Tic. They were a bit bigger than I’d envisioned, but a few moments in the “get to know a cat room” and I knew I had to bring the wife and kids to meet the cats.

With the family in tow, I returned to the cat adoption center later that day. As expected, the kids fell in love immediately. Luna, in particular, seemed such an affectionate little being. While Tic bounced around the little padded room, causing as much mischief as possible, Luna introduced herself to the kids, rubbing up against their legs and settling onto their laps.

There are few better examples of pure joy than that of a kid meeting a kitten. My kids all fawned over their potential pets, and my wife and I just watched them enjoy it.

Luna was the favorite, but Tic, too, earned some admirers. Suddenly, we had a new dilemma: do we get one cat, or two?

After much back and forth, we determined we could only handle one cat. So we applied to adopt Luna.

A few days later, she went home with us and joined our family. Though I continued to stop by the adoption center for the next few weeks to check on Tic, hoping she found a home. Eventually, she did. We still think of her.

Fast forward a year, and Luna is fully a part of our family. She’s grown up a bit, but she's still as affectionate as that first day we met her. She sleeps in our eldest daughter’s bed each night, play/attacks us through the banister at the top of the steps, and pushes the dog’s buttons.

She’s gotten in a bit of trouble at times, as family members do. She’s had to learn not to get on the counters – or more likely, not to do it when my wife or I are around. And we’ve had to learn to keep the doors to outside shut. We knew going into the cat thing that we wanted ours to be an indoor cat. It’s just safer that way.

Luna didn’t quite understand the need to stay indoors and has been darting out since early last Spring. The first few times she got out, we scrambled into full panic mode – DefCat 4. The entire family would put on shoes and go out to herd the cat back indoors. We got good at it.  “Luna’s out!” Would be sounded, and we’d all jump to our jobs.

Then, one time this summer, we couldn’t find her. We fretted and worried, and I paced the yard while my daughter watched the doors. Still no cat. We went inside to assess our options. A few hours later, into the evening, Luna came back. She meowed at the door and walked in like nothing had happened.

After that we continued working to keep her in, but when she got out we didn’t panic. She always came back. Sometimes she even did it when we called her name out the back door. And, as the snow fell this fall, she seemed less eager to escape.

Then, on Monday, she got out again. Being just a few days before Christmas, and the kids off of school for the break, we had a lot going on that day. After her escape, no one panicked. My wife and I kept on working, and the kids played and watched TV.  Once I had a break in the work action, I took them to the YMCA and then to the Library.

The day passed, as each tends to, and before long we were getting dinner ready when someone mentioned they hadn’t seen Luna lately.

“I think she got out earlier,” my wife said. “Has she come back?”

It was then that our eldest daughter, who has a special connection to Luna, started to panic.

“She’s still out?!”...

“It’s freezing out there!”...

“She’s been out all day!”

All those were from her.

“Calm down!” I yelled.

I’ve been trying to impress on our pre-teen the need to stay calm during times of crisis, as a clear head is essential. I teach her this by yelling at the top of my lungs things like Calm Down and Just Chill.

Still, I figured Luna was likely fine and needed to prevent my daughter from freaking out and putting the whole evening into a tailspin.

She gathered her thoughts a bit, and went to the door to call for her. When she opened it she could hear the distant yowl of a cat.

“I hear her!”

She started to panic again. I did not. A few months back, Luna had gotten herself stuck about 6 feet up a tree in our yard. She yowled then too, and we quickly retrieved her. It was comical.

This time my daughter and I got on boots and jackets and went out the back door into the darkness to find and retrieve our cat.

The yowls and meows were near constant, making it easy to track. First the sound drew us toward the trees between our house and the neighbors. I shone my iPhone flashlight while my daughter circled the grove of trees.

Another meow sounded out, and my daughter turned and looked even further into the neighbor’s yard.

“She’s over there,” she pointed in the general direction of the neighbor’s porch and the much taller grove of trees separating them from the next house.

We stealthily entered our neighbor’s backyard.

Another yowl came and I figured she must be stuck under their wooden deck, maybe unable to get out through the mesh under-fencing meant to keep skunks and raccoons away. But then another came, and my daughter started looking almost straight up and pointing through the darkness to the tall trees.

“She’s in those trees!” she whisper-screamed.

No way, I thought.

We hurried across the yard and found ourselves at the base of a 45 foot pine tree.

A “Meow!” came down through the branches.

“Luna?!” my daughter returned.

I shone my iPhone light up the trunk of the pine. Through branches and needles, it illuminated the first twenty feet or so. Yet, no visual sign of the cat. Still, we knew we had the right tree; It was just a matter of how high she was.


That white spot that looks like a star
is actually our cat atop a 45-foot tall pine.
We assessed our options. Could we climb? The tree was tall, but the first few feet seemed climbable. My daughter grabbed a lower branch and started. Like I said, she loves this cat.

I convinced her we needed to get a visual first, even though it was dark out. We hustled back to the house to get a proper flashlight and brief my wife on the situation.

“Luna’s up a tree!” our daughter informed the family. Cat up a tree? Big deal, right? Was the general reaction. Just get her down.

I got a better flashlight and returned with my daughter to the neighbor’s yard. From a distance away from the tree, I shone the light slowly up through its midsection as I called the cat, hoping she’d look my way and return the shine through her eyes. Up and up I scanned. Then, almost to the top, I saw the telltale reflection of cat’s eyes in the dark: she was way up a tree.

By my calculation, the tree was close to 45 feet tall. Luna’s eyes showed her to be about 5 feet from the top.

My daughter gasped when she saw, and started to freak out again. I didn’t stop her this time.

Back at home, I told the family that Luna was really up a tree. Like, we-can’t -get-her up. After coming to assess the situation and a debate about whether we could actually climb the tree – which we couldn’t, and even if we could, it wouldn’t be smart – my wife and I returned to the house to research what to do. My daughter stayed with the tree and her cat in the cold.

For research we turned to the usual source: the internet. My wife Googled “how to get cats out of trees,” and I posted a general request to Facebook. The internet/social media world responded and advice flooded in.

We soon discovered people are divided into two camp on this subject: The put-sardines-at-the-bottom-of-the-tree camp, and the I’ve-never-seen-a-cat-skeleton-in-a-tree camp.

Input and anecdotes came from both the “Coaxing” and the “Tough Love” world views. All of it came with genuine concern (well, most of it).

Put a bowl of food at the bottom, and she‘ll come down when she’s hungry. My friend’s cat was up a tree for three days before it decided to come down. Have you tried spraying her with a hose? Throw snowballs above her? A laser pointer? I have a 40 foot ladder you can borrow. Call the fire department. Give me a 12 gauge and I’ll get your cat down (No one really said this last one, but the sentiment was there).

Most of the advice from friends came without them fathoming exactly how frigging high the cat was. I couldn’t throw a snowball that high with accuracy. Even the tallest ladder was too short, taking into account the angles. Plus, there was nothing sturdy to lean it up against that high in the tree.

The main problem with most of the advice was that it also came with the assumption that the cat was just being stubborn. I knew from the yowls that she wasn’t stubborn, she was panicking too. Maybe even stuck somehow, with a leg between branches or something.

We kept reading and researching.

It turns out – based on what we read-- that cats don’t always come down. Their claws are great at climbing up, and not so good at climbing down. If you’ve ever seen a cat try to shimmy down a tree backwards, you know it isn’t pretty. Could she do that from 40 feet up? Not likely.

Fear, immaturity, and old age can all contribute to a cat getting literally stuck high up in a tree. If the cat can’t figure out how to get down, the elements, other animals, hunger and thirst are all threats. The internet holds a number of examples of cats atop tall pines in particular that didn’t end well. Then I began to panic.

At some point, my wife called the local fire department, which seems kind of cliché, but was clearly worth a try. They said they were on a real call, but we could call back later. Then they said they’d most likely spray her with water. I knew the temps were supposed to hover around freezing that night, and figured spraying her now was not the best option. Plus, one anecdote mentioned a cat jumping from a tall pine to avoid being sprayed and dying from the fall. It seemed we weren’t there yet.

Meanwhile, I found a story in the local paper from a few years back that said another family got their cat down from a tree with the help of an unemployed arborist. These are expert tree climbers, among other things. And it just so happens that the local college – SUNY ESF – has the best arborist program around. I found a list of New York State arborist and sent a longshot e-mail to one listed as living nearby.

Willing to try some of the other advice found and received, I went to the store to buy wet food (which has a more pungent smell), a laser pointer, and a better flashlight.

The better flashlight gave us a solid visual on the cat. She was moving around a bit, even seemed to climb up higher from when we first found her. At least she wasn’t physically stuck, I thought. The laser pointer was cool, but failed to draw her attention. So, we set the wet food at the bottom of the tree and then gathered on the sidewalk with a few neighbors who’d come to inquire about the drama – the cat’s meows transmitted throughout the block.

We learned from neighbors that she’d been crying like that since at least 2 p.m. It was getting close to 9:00 p.m., by this point, which meant she’d been up the tree almost 7 hours already.

We talked again about the fire company. And the water spraying thing. Then another neighbor mentioned the local utility company, National Grid. They have tree trimming crews. And I remembered seeing a few Grid personnel on the list of arborist. Sounded like a good next option. I stepped inside and sent another kindly worded, but desperate, e-mail to an arborist.

It kept getting later and we exhausted the options we could reasonably pursue that night without potentially causing more harm than good.

After some more tears, and threats of sleeping outside by my daughter, we left the food at the foot of the tree and shut the rescue operation down for the night.

My daughter was distraught. I wasn’t particularly optimistic either. It was going to be a cold night and, by the time I went to bed, I’d determined in my mind that Luna wasn’t going to come down without help. If she made it through the night, we’d need either the fire company to send a ladder truck or an arborist to get our cat back alive.

That night, my daughter cried herself to sleep while my wife assured her we’d solve this. I slept on the couch by the French doors, hoping to let her in should she find her way down. Eventually, we all fell asleep.

At about 1 a.m., I woke with a start and heard the rain pouring through the gutters. Crap. I checked the temperature, 32 degrees. Well, at least maybe this would force her down – like the fire company’s hose. I put on boots and a jacket and went into the back yard, shining my new flashlight to the tall grove of trees across the neighbor’s yard. Luna’s eyes shone back. And then she let out a yowl. She hadn’t succumbed to the elements yet. But she hadn’t budged either.

I went back to the couch. And I worried that if we didn’t solve this, we may have seen the end of our wee kitty.

The next morning, as the sky was just starting to lighten with the soon-rising sun, I returned to the tree. It was silent.

“Luna?” I called up.

Nothing.

“Luna?"

Then she meowed back. She was still there.

The light of day made things seem better, but not much. I still knew we’d need some help to get this cat down. We had to find someone with the means to get her down and some Christmas spirit to spare. And, frankly, I didn’t know if it would happen. To top it off, Christmas was just two days away. Would this be known as the Christmas the cat died? Thoughts like that had been creeping into my head since I first saw her 40 feet up a pine. But I’d kept them at bay. Now those thoughts were winning.

I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes things don’t work out. That sometimes that glimmer of hope isn’t a glimmer at all. But, I also know that sometimes it is.

About 7 a.m., I checked my e-mail. And I found a glimmer.

A National Grid arborist had written me back:

“Good Morning Mr. Ruddy.  Did your cat come down?”

I wrote back:

“No, sir.  She has not budged.  I just checked on her and she's still up there crying. We tried can food at the bottom of the tree, a laser pointer, waiting and it rained. I've believed for a while we have to find a way to get to her. Thanks for getting back to me.”

A few minutes later, this came:

“This is well outside our service mandates but call my cell …”

I woke the family and within half an hour a service truck from National Grid was parked in my neighbor’s driveway as a crew of three men used a bucket truck with 70 foot reach to retrieve our little Luna.

While they were working I asked the arborist if people were calling them all the time with this sort of thing. He said that in 20 years, this was just his 5th cat rescue. 

In all it took them about fifteen minutes, but it meant everything to our family. We cannot thank them enough.

Christmas miracles do come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Our was furry. And it involved men with a bucket truck.

Merry Christmas.


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