The Tao of the cat in a tree

Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

T he kids on Gastineau Avenue called the little cat "Raven" because he was black and perched in a tree. He'd been there four days since a neighbor, looking out her kitchen window, had first spotted him. In early December's stiff winds and bitter cold, he sat in the old alder tree, far out on a branch and silhouetted against the winter sky.

Climbing trees is instinctive; kittens start doing it when they are just a few weeks old. It's one of a cat's primary means of escape. But climbing down does not come naturally. It's a skill they have to learn, Raven obviously hadn't learned it yet.

It took repeated attempts, a 30-foot extension ladder, and someone willing to climb it to get Raven down. The top rung reached just to the base of Raven's branch, which soared up another 10 feet. When the man appeared at the top of the ladder, calling, the cat ventured near enough to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck.

It's a familiar story, and one that usually has a happy ending. Most cats who get stuck up in trees survive. Like Raven, almost all are youngsters who shoot up a tree to get away from something that's frightened them.

Cats start the climb with a leap, dig in with their claws, and use their strong haunches to power upward. Climbing down is much harder. Because of its downward-curving claws, the cat can't go headfirst. He has to back down, hanging from his less powerful front legs, lifting one at a time to dislodge the downward-curving claws.

So how do you get a cat out of a tree? First, give him some time to get over the scare that put him there and to screw up his courage to try coming down. A cat in good shape who has had some climbing experience usually can make it on his own. An overweight cat or one who has been declawed in front cannot.

The cat is most likely to come down at night. Just before bedtime, go to the base of the tree, call the cat and make a show of leaving tempting food there. Then go directly inside. Keep your dog indoors and ask the neighbors to do so, too. Don't call the cat from inside the house; that will confuse him. You want to draw him directly down to the base of the tree.

Believe it or not, what ultimately may drive him to earth is an increasingly urgent need to use the litter box.

Most cats will descend on their own in a day or three. After that, it's time to borrow a ladder. Lean it solidly against the tree with the top rung as close as possible to the cat. It's a lot easier for him to come down a ladder than the tree trunk. Wood or fiberglass ladders give better purchase, as do ladders with flat steps instead of rungs.

If you decide it's time to climb, put on a heavy jacket and gloves. A frightened cat will grab onto you like a drowning man with four sets of grapples. Don't try to carry the cat down. You can end up shredded or flat on your back on the ground if he suddenly starts struggling.

Arm yourself with a bag into which to put the cat and a rope to lower the bag to the ground. A pillowcase will do, but it's much easier to get a cat into a duffel bag that opens wide and then zips securely shut. From that point on, it's in the bag - literally. Make sure those on the receiving end stand back when letting the cat out. He's likely to freak out and run and hide for a while.

Firefighters and utility companies do not rescue cats. If you need professional help, call a tree service. Those folks have the right equipment and know how to climb a tree. They also know how to climb down.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats.

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