with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Aerial Cat Babysitting

DJ in the tree coming face to face with the climber by Lorelle VanFossen

DJ in tree as tree climber grabs him - by Lorelle VanFossen

DJ stuck in the top of a tree with arrow pointing by Lorelle VanFossenIn the fall of 2010, I showed up in Dallas for OpenCamp having slept only a few hours a night for the past week. I told my friends that I had been an aerial cat babysitter, hosting the neighbor’s young cat 150 feet up in a tree in my “yard.” They didn’t believe I owned trees that tall. Well, I do.

For three days I kept hearing a cat crying around the house. We wandered all over the property looking for him. On the fourth night, Brent and I went out late with a flash light hunting for the meowing cat that kept us awake during the night. I kept circling the same tree with no luck, sure he was there somewhere in the brush, caught on a piece of barbed wire left from when this was agricultural land, with a tree limb on him, something. Nothing.

On instinct, I swung my flashlight up and two sparkling eyes shone down from about 100 feet up in the tree. Crap.

Brent and I shone both our lights on him way up there and he looked fine, just stressed. I went over and got the neighbor. He came over and together we begged and pleaded for the fuzzy kid to come down, but no luck. All we could do was head off to bed and hope he figured it out for himself.

While many people make the same stupid joke about how the cat will eventually figure it out because “you don’t see cat skeletons up in the trees,” the truth is that most cats do get down – by falling not climbing.

Cats are designed to climb. They aren’t configured for getting down. So they jump or fall and hopefully survive. Some estimates are that most cats survive but only if they are between specific heights. They need to have enough distance so they can twist and turn and brace themselves for landing. Higher is often better, but 100+ feet is pushing it, especially when the landing zone is filled with pointed sticks, sharp bushes, and stumps, each one a potential skewer as well as an uneven landing.

The cat, DJ, was first at about 100 feet or so, and then climbed up even higher, about 150 feet, about 20 feet or so from the very top of the tree poking up out of the forest canopy. The first 50-75 feet the tree had no branches, so leaping from branch to branch wasn’t an option. The same held for the trees near it. He could go up and down at the highest level, but it was a straight drop where the branches quit.

Over the next few days I tried everything. I put out a lounge chair from the deck under the tree so the neighbor could lie on it and look up at the cat and talk to him, hoping his voice would help him come down. I cooked up some chicken on the outdoor grill and took it over, waving a towel to waft the scent up into the trees.

Brent and I covered as much of the area below the tree with giant plastic tarps we used to use to cover our trailer. At the least they created a landing zone with a smooth perspective, and provided a little padding on the sharp undergrowth.

I also did research on tree climbers and found a team of two guys who would come out for $200 to rescue the cat. Expensive, but an option. One the owner finally took as Brent and I were both heading out of town for the next week or more.

The tree climbers showed up in the early afternoon. They’d already been all over two counties rescuing two other cats that morning. I didn’t realized that something like this would be such a good business. It’s also dangerous, especially because DJ had moved higher in the tree that morning.

The smallest of the guys geared up while the other inspected the tree and area. Once they figured out a plan of action, the small guy was up that tree like he was in a race.

They’d warned us that there were a variety of events that could occur. First, the climber would reach the cat and rescue him, slipping him into the bag and sliding back down the ropes, everyone fine. Second, the climber would reach the cat but the cat would freak out and put up a fight, causing the climber to possibly drop the cat if he couldn’t get it into the bag in time, especially if it meant risking his life in the tree. People first, cat last. Or, the cat would either climb up higher in the tree, scared by the man climbing up the tree, and possibly fall. They said that at that height, it was iffy if the cat would live, but he’d try to aim the cat onto the tarps to improve the chance of survival.

DJ in the tree coming face to face with the climber by Lorelle VanFossenDJ went up a few more feet as the man climbed the tree. The trunk of the tree was so thin, you could probably wrap one hand around it. The man got as high as he could without risking the top of the tree breaking off, but DJ was still a couple meters higher.

We all talked and called to him, the man speaking softly in Spanish, begging DJ to come down. Slowly he did, branch by branch, moving closer to the man’s outreached hands.

Moving at incredible speed, he snatched DJ and swung him across his body and into the bag, tying it tight and dropping it to swing below him so he could get his hands back on the tree and stable. Amazing!

DJ, just out of the tree in the carrier by Lorelle VanFossenWithin seconds he’d repelled back down the tree and the little scared kitty was out of the bag and into a towel I had waiting. I raced him into the house and into a carrier I had waiting and ready for him with food and water. A quick inspection found him in good health, which was surprising, though he was thin and scared. He was safe, and that was all that mattered at the moment.

I called the neighbor who got there from work as soon as he could and rushed DJ to the vet. The vet found him hungry and slightly dehydrated, but fine.

I was traveling for about six weeks for work and returned home to find DJ and his brother, AJ, wandering our property and looking fine. Two days later, I heard DJ crying and wandered the forest until I found him up in another damn tree. I called the neighbor and told him that this was his aerial cat babysitter again. I told him that this time, DJ had picked a tree with plenty of branches, and a tree next to it with even more easily reached branches, so we were to just ignore him. He’d make his way down.

Another chicken dinner on the grill and three hours later DJ was meowing at my office window, hungry but fine. I fed him and he stayed close to the house under the deck that night, and then made his way back home the next morning.

Desperate to keep DJ from repeating this, we did some research. It seems that tree climbing like this happens for two reasons, so sayeth pet psychologists. The main reason is because they are escaping. Up is safe but up can get them stuck as they just don’t know how to get down. The other reason is food. They go after the birds as the birds are in the trees, and get stuck.

To keep him from climbing, the experts recommend that they get plenty of food and attention and be kept indoors more than out. That wasn’t an option with our neighbor, so overfeeding became the other alternative. The less interest in chasing birds for food, and the fatter, the less likely they are to climb.

Well, DJ has the genetics of a race horse. Skinny forever. His brother, AJ, is on his way to the chubby farm, but DJ will stay scrawny. Both are undersized and scrawny.

Still, so far, no more aerial cat babysitting, but the photographs of the adventure are fun.

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