The Cat Whisperer

Sybil is a bad kitty. She knows this, but with the perpetual disdain of her species, she disregards the unlatched screen door, and walks out into the world. It smells delicious, like mice and birds and freedom. After a few minutes of rubbing her scent on the big trees in the yard and on the doorstep, she hears a sound she cannot quite identify.

She stops, mid-step, and an ear swivels back toward a suspicious panting sound. A coyote leaps from the hedge, and his jaws just miss. As she jumps forward she feels its breath on her tail. Running from the monster she has never imagined, a monster five times her size, she bounds in a leaping zigzag to the tree and up. She has just climbed faster than any other animal but a squirrel could have.

She stops at a limb eighty feet in the air, knowing that she is safe, and that the coyote’s snarl has faded and gone somewhere else. She is comfortable here on a five-inch wide Douglas-fir limb. She licks a paw, rubs her face, and looks toward home.
She hops to the nearest limb. Her feet scrabble for purchase. She sits teetering deciding whether to jump again. Something in her thousands of years of feline evolution says stay here.

Domestic cats have a combination of fantastic upward climbing prowess and almost no ability to climb downward, due to a terrible trick of evolution. The claws that work so well going up, emerging and retracting at will, point back at the cat’s body. Cats do not climb tail-first, if they have a choice.

Sybil has been in the tree for three hours, hopping from those two limbs to a third and back. She begins to cry at the unfairness of it all. It will be hours before the neighbor hears her, and phones her owners. After trying themselves for days to coax her down, they call a guy they find on the web. Dan’s cat-in-a-tree rescue.
Thirty-two miles from Sybil, Dan Kraus is working in a pin-oak, using his handsaw to clear dead limbs. He moves effortlessly, making a tiny clink clink sound as he walks along the limb, from the metal carabiner’s jingle against the metal D-rings of the climbing saddle. He is thinking about his daughter’s swim lesson last Wednesday. All those toddlers and little Jasmine, barely verbal, kicking with joy to the music. In the oak, the going gets tough and he walks backward, hops back and down five feet, tail first, one hand relaxing on his rope as he looks over his shoulder.

To see Dan climb is to observe a graceful engagement. He is one with the rope, easing it in and around limbs, his handsaw sliding between the limbs as if fencing with a very large and stubborn opponent. Pulling the limbs, which have to be loosened from their grip on each other. Once in a while, his chainsaw roars to life and he cuts a large limb, calling out “Headache!” before he throws it, so the ground guys look up. This is the job that tens of thousands of mostly men and increasing numbers of women do for a living all over the United States and most civilized countries of the world. But Dan is different in that he plans and thinks through climbs in his spare time. Besides the hundred-year-old-science of Tree Surgery, now called arboriculture, he has a personal love of climbing.

If you watched Dan climb, as I have done many times in the last fifteen years, you might say he’s as fluid as a dancer in the trees. He competes in professional arborist competitions, sometimes two or three in a year. These are the competitions, that are open only to professional tree climbers with worker’s compensation. Top arborists climb on rope in trees for a variety of prizes, worth nothing in relation to the time they spend practicing. Not all the top competitors are his age, forty-four, but it isn’t unheard-of. They usually rack up the big wins and world records in their twenties, though, and Dan set a world record going up a 15 meter rope using only his hands and feet, called ‘footlocking’ at forty-plus. All of these athletes devote time each week to strength training, and some climb recreationally, aside from their eight-hour day. An observer probably wouldn’t notice Dan’s facility in a tree, because he is not showy or loud. He simply finishes in the top five in the world, consistently, year after year. When Dan discovered Tree Climbing Competitons, or TCC’s, he immediately won some events. Then he invented not only ways to train, but devices and uses for equipment that nobody else had tried.

“There weren’t any books on how to train,” he says with a shrug. ”I had to make it up as I went along.”

TCC’s started out around thirty years ago when a line clearance crew in California held a contest with a rival company to see how fast their climbers could get an injured man out of a tree. They realized, as linemen do, that in case of electric shock or bleeding, the other crewmembers would be the only hope to bring a man down. And seconds could save a life. The contest has evolved and is now a sanctioned, five-event contest testing every facet of a climbers skill and strength, and speed. Speed means nerves in the contest, with the best climbers overall taking huge swoops on rope to land running on another limb.

Dan’s phone rings and Sybil’s owner, frantic, introduces herself. She describes the cat’s predicament and says, “I found you on the website…” meaning Dan’s cat-in-a-tree site, that has attracted thousands of hits, and lists professional climbers all over the world, including the U.S and Europe. He makes a little checkmark on his pad, and asks how long the cat has been up. He writes her address and directions down in a small notebook he carries. He tells her it will cost seventy-five dollars, and that he can get there in about a half-hour.

“Fine,” the woman says, “But what if it’s dark by then? She’s been up there for three days!”

“I’ll get her.“ He says simply.

He does not tell her he is currently suspended from two brightly colored carabiners looped to two slender ropes, going up and over one limb sixteen feet over his head. He does not explain that he has done rescues at night with his headlamp on. Dan doesn’t volunteer much information, and in cat rescue there is not always a perfect ending. He tells me about the time a chubby cat fell while struggling to escape him in a tree. The cat hit concrete thirty feet down, ran a few steps, and died in its owner’s arms. “It’s always a risk,” he says.

Sometimes, on a miserable cold rainy Seattle day, Dan says to the crew, “I should have stayed in school!” He did get a degree in psychology, thinking he would go on to sports psychology. But his vague aspirations were victims of his conflicting traits. He disliked academia and he was falling in love with climbing. He survived college by climbing and pruning for one of the largest businesses in the islands of Hawaii, owned by his father Mike.

Mike says Dan was a good athlete. “He competed in bicycle races and won big all through high school.” But he and other tree men shake their heads at his ‘side business’.

Dan’s former employer, Steve Nimz said, “Dan is always getting new climbing toys and
going to more competitions.” Steve shakes his head, “It’s not a real profitable hobby.” And a tree man can make as much doing pruning or removals on a weekend as Dan makes at his cat rescues in a month.

Competition is difficult to watch, unless you are a climber yourself. It will never be on ESPN like the Logger Games. It is a contest designed for a trade prizing finesse and speed. But one of the highest scoring of the five events in a Tree Climber’s Competition, or TCC, is the Aerial Rescue. Dan has been unbeatable in Aerial Rescue in many of his competitions, and he says, “It does dovetail well with the cat rescue thing.”

After work, before he drives across town, he calls his wife to say he’ll be late. He explains he’s got to rescue a cat from an eighty-foot Doug fir. I can hear the sound of Justina laughing. It’s a sound many men would attempt to climb eighty-foot trees to hear, a delightful river of notes. When I get the phone I ask her if she ever gets impatient with Dan’s business, she says, “No. Superheroes keep odd hours.”
No matter what kind of personality Sybil had before today, when a strange man comes hoisting himself up to touch her and then put her in a bag, she will not be cooperative. Dan actually has two cats. He thought he knew a thing or two about them. He was amazed the first time he rescued one, a kitten, who he said, “…could hardly make a sound,” and who barely resisted his grasp. That’s when he realized cats need rescuing, and took cards to several vets, cat clinics and the like. Years later, this business got so big he began to refer other climbers in the area, and his popularity begat a website. Dan has now rescued more than six hundred cats, a few birds, and an iguana.

No wonder he feels confident at aerial rescue, while the best climbers in the world watch him carefully as he gets a two-hundred pound dummy out of its perch and down, against the relentless clock. Aerial rescue is role-playing with an injured dummy, with a hundred tree trimmers yelling go!go! and a protocol to be followed, and absolute safety to be observed. Once a tree guy was killed at a park in Portland, doing aerial rescue at a competition. Every move is counted, and several of them, even in the TCC, could be deadly. Dan gets excited talking about a TCC he did years ago, and remembers details of safety and of speed, as a religious convert would remember his baptism.

Cats may not even like people. We will never know. But Sybil, in a tree for days now, is nearly a wild animal. Dan regularly goes up trees where somebody went up a ladder, picked up the cat, and found themselves slashed or bitten by a formerly harmless cat.

As we drive across the 520 bridge toward Bellevue, Dan talks rapidly about the
innovations he has made to his rescue kit. He uses a laundry bag with a glove sewn into it to pick up the cat, and then turns the bag inside out, ties it shut, and either lowers it or descends with the cat in the bag, clipped to his harness. This way he eliminates much of the risk, and it calms the cat a little to be in the dark.

“What if you get one who wants to jump?”

“Jumper?” he asks, “It does happen. I’ve sort of got to where I can see if they look like they might jump, cause they back up on a limb, or put their ears down. I have a tarp in back,” his thumb jerks to the back of the canopied red truck, “and if he looks like a jumper, I have the people on the ground try to catch him firefighter-style.”

Sybil is still hopping back and forth, exhausted, from the two limbs of the Douglas-fir. She cannot know help is coming.

One time Dan tells me, that he had a sweet gentle cat to rescue. A cat the owner’s reportedly gave baths to, and who “…would come to anyone,” they said. Tinkerbelle, up for a week, was frantic, and did not like Dan. When he got a hold of her, she sunk her teeth through his gloved hand. “Usually, their claws pull right off the limb like velcro and that’s it… but this cat would not let go, so when I reached in to get her paws off, she just bit me.” When he gave up his grip on her, she quickly bit him again, and leaped to a nearby tree.

When she got a good distance above him, and the assembled neighbors below were pointing and looking up, Tinkerbelle began to pee. She soaked most of them, as well as Dan. She eventually jumped down thirty feet and ran. The people paid him and he went to the hospital. Cats do not have clean mouths. The emergency room visit cost him several more rescues.

When Dan drove up he immediately pointed out Sybil, a tiny spot of calico against a massive tree trunk. He assembled an eight-foot slingshot. As he put his throwball in it, he explained to the people gathering that he could not toss the ball high enough so he was going to shoot it up over high limbs, pulling a light line with it. When that got to the ground, he would unclip the ball, and clip on a climbing line, and go up it.

“You’re kidding,” said Sybil’s owner.

Dan hit the shot he wanted, over two sturdy limbs, high in the top— at dusk— a hundred feet away. It was the kind of thing that in a contest would get a ripple of grudging applause from competitors who also do it for a living. Several kids in the neighborhood were certain now exactly what they wanted to be when they got big.
Sybil’s owner could not watch and hid her face as he ascended, clink-clank, to the sounds of the kids saying “God!” and “Lookit that!” He disappeared from view in about twenty seconds, engulfed in the canopy of green needles.

Three of us had the tarp in a place where Dan had told us was a likely spot, in case she flew. I sincerely hoped she was dehydrated.
We heard him scramble onto a limb, and could barely see his shadowy figure going in and out of the foliage, saying, ”Hi Sybil, how you doin’ girl?” We heard a short hiss, then a muffled mewing. Dan shouted down “Got her in the bag!” and the kids erupted in cheers.

He rappelled down, faster than an elevator, with Sybil docile in the bag. He held out the bag to the owner and told her to take it into the house before she opened it. Apparently, sometimes rescued cats run back up a tree. As everyone crowded around and asked questions, the tearful owner went into the house with her bag. These are the moments Dan really enjoys, where he explains how simple it is. We stand back and shake our heads, because he is leaving out any mention of fear, danger, or failure. The nice lady comes back with a check. As he tucks away his equipment, neatly in the canopy of the truck, he asks how the cat’s is doing, now that she is down.

“ She’s drinking her second bowl of water and purring.”

“ Aww. That’s great,” says Dan. Sybil and Dan will probably never see each other again, and that suits them both fine.

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