Do fire departments actually rescue cats from trees?

January 8, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Is it necessary for the fire department to rescue a cat that's stuck in a tree? I mean, c'mon, they got up there. Can't they get down on their own?

Cecil replies:

This was the occasion of another argument between me and my assistant Una. I reasoned along the same lines as you, Dave — cats have been climbing trees and presumably getting down from them for millions of years without the intervention of fire departments. What seems more likely is that we now have neurotic cat owners who see their pets climbing trees, leap to the assumption that the cat can't get down, and figure the answer to all of life's problems is to call the fire department.

Una didn't see it that way. She observed that cats have curved claws and strong back legs that facilitate climbing upwards but are less useful when it's time to return to earth. Indeed, cats must often back their way down or jump from the lowest branch, which Una knows from personal observation is both ungainly and hazardous. We had the following exchange:

Me: I'm sorry, I'm not buying this. You're suggesting that, for cats, tree-climbing is a one-way street, and that if we examined the fossil record we would find vast strata of fossil forests with fossil cats crammed in the upper branches, futilely awaiting human beings, urbanization, combustible buildings, the hook and ladder, the telephone, and other necessities whose emergence was still eons off. I respectfully suggest that neurotic cat owners is the more parsimonious explanation.

Una: I'm not saying all cats get stuck in trees. On the contrary, there are more than 80 million domestic cats in the United States, the overwhelming majority of whom get into and out of trees without assistance. However, some cats clearly do get stuck in trees, including some nondomesticated ones, as demonstrated by this YouTube video (tiny.cc./stucktiger) showing a tiger stuck in a tree at a zoo.

Me [watching]: Huh. That’s one confused-looking tiger. Even so, if I'm a fireman and the call comes in to get it out of the tree, I'm hoping it's my day off.

Una: You see the tiger's problem. It's trying to climb down the tree headfirst. This is not a graceful spectacle.

Me: OK, I revise my view of the situation. Cats have an easier time getting up than down, no doubt because as carnivores one reason they climb trees in the first place is to spot prey upon which they then pounce, thereby simultaneously solving the problem of where their next meal is coming from and how they're going to get down. We know further that even without some hapless herbivore underfoot to cushion the blow, cats are capable of surviving jumps from great heights without injury. However, some trifling number of cats are either too decrepit, timid, or dumb to jump, and it's these cats that fire departments are called upon to rescue, although from a Darwinian standpoint they're probably not doing the family Felidae any favors to return these specimens to the gene pool. The question remains whether fire departments rescue cats from trees in statistically significant numbers, or whether one fire department rescued one cat from one tree, which has given rise to the subsequent legend.

Una: I can’t imagine fire departments like doing it. I found two cat rescue attempts where the firefighters were accidentally electrocuted by power lines. There's also the expense — for example, the fire department in Kansas City, Kansas, calculated it spent $57.26 on gas responding to 14 cat-in-tree calls in one year. Possibly because of such concerns, or perhaps because they just don't like cats, many fire departments won't perform cat rescues, claiming the animal will get down on its own. A common refrain is: "When was the last time you saw a cat skeleton in a tree?"

Other fire departments are willing to give it a go. I found news accounts of cat rescues in 34 states (some of which admittedly involved venues other than trees). The most impressive involved a tabby brought down safely from 100 feet up an evergreen tree in Hayward, California.

However, it would be unwise to assume that the fire department is going to use advanced cat-rescue techniques. Firefighters in Okinawa, Japan, earlier this year decided the best way to deal with a feline up a 60-foot tree was to grab a chain saw and lop off the section the cat was clinging to. When a Tennessee woman's cat was stuck in a pine tree, firefighters gave her two options: they could blast it out with a hose or shake the tree until the cat fell out. When asked how option B was any different from the cat’s just falling out on its own, one firefighter answered, "Neither is real different, ma'am. Just quicker."

So there you go, Dave. Cats do in fact get trapped in trees, and if you ask the fire department to do something about it, well, “rescue” might not be the best description of the ensuing operation. But there's a good chance they'll show up.

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References

“Analysis Report of Firefighter Fatalities” Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Fire Administration, Contract No. EMW-90-C-3332, August, 1991.

Jowers, Walter. "In the Pines" Nashville Scene 26 July 2001 http://www.nashvillescene.com/2001-07-26/stories/in-the-pines/

Japan Probe: Japanese firefighters cut down tree to rescue stranded cat. http://www.japanprobe.com/2009/02/26/japanese-firefighters-cut-down-tree-to-rescue-stranded-cat/

"Line of Duty Deaths: Harold U. Davenport" Las Vegas Firefighters http://www.iafflocal1285.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=43&Itemid=56

"Silly Firemen, Water's for Fires" The Pitch Kansas City 27 June 2007.

Sweeney, Jason. "Hayward firefighters relent, save tabby cat from night in tree." Oakland Tribune 03 December 2007.

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