PORT ORCHARD — On a recent Tuesday morning, Iris, a cat, was letting everyone in the neighborhood know about her unhappy predicament.
The 4-year-old tortie had stranded herself up a fir tree overnight in the parking lot of a single-story apartment complex. “Meow-rr!” she announced mournfully at occasions. “Meow-rr-rr!”
Her owner, Terry Quesnell, said he’d tried to coax her to the ground, standing in the back of a truck with a blanket. No dice. Now Iris was hungry and wanted to leave the tree, but, like most cats, she’s better at climbing up than down.
Quesnell had called the local fire department, but was told they don’t deal with cats in trees anymore. So, he turned to Canopy Cat Rescue, a nonprofit that retrieves treed kitties across Western Washington.
Tom Otto and Shaun Sears, a pair of certified arborists, founded the outfit in 2009, transitioning from tree caretakers to cat saviors. Operating on donations, they rescue hundreds of cats a year, from Vancouver, Washington, to the Canadian border.
On this day in Port Orchard, Otto showed up to assess the Iris situation.
This would not be a particularly difficult mission. Iris was only about 20 feet up. Their average cat rescue is 60 feet or higher in a tree, and has been up there three days.
Neighbors gathered around with opinions.
“That cat is not very smart, I’ll tell you that!” a man called out. Otto jumped to Iris’ defense: “She got away from whatever was chasing her, you know.”
Cinching himself up the fir with a harness, rope and animal-handler net, Otto talked to Iris, calming her as he approached the limb on which she was perched, still crying for assistance.
Reaching Iris’ branch, Otto pulled her close and plopped her in the net and the crying stopped. Lowering himself down, he handed the net to Quesnell, directing him to let Iris out only when back inside his nearby apartment.
Iris joined a long roster of cats returned to solid ground and grateful owners. In recent months, Canopy Cat Rescue has retrieved Sancho, Dilly, Belly, Kitten George and Lil Bear. They’ve also been there for Pebbles, Pepper, Citrus, Indica, Mischief, Vindaloo, Tinkerbell, Stinkyface, plenty of Lunas and Tigers, and, the other week, Brian.
They document many of their jobs on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In 2015, the duo starred in their own reality show, “Treetop Cat Rescue,” on Animal Planet. It lasted 10 episodes. Back then, Otto and Sears were rescuing 250 cats a year. Now they’re up to about 750.
The calls for help get split by location. Otto, 49, who lives in Olympia, generally takes everything from about Auburn south, while Sears, 43, from Woodinville, handles the Seattle area and anything north.
It’s all a labor of love. They don’t charge any fee, but accept donations to help pay themselves a modest amount and defray expenses, especially gas. Some people have offered a dozen eggs or cookies. Others drop $100 or even $500.
“It’s somewhat of a calling for us. It feels great to help people,” said Otto, who owns two rescued cats, Bean and Bug, in addition to Miko, a border collie.
“We don’t like cats. We love cats,” said Sears, who owns a big fluffy orange cat named Medi, or “King Cat,” plus a 16-year-old black lab, Tommy, and a 3-year-old miniature Australian Shepherd.
The distress calls come in almost daily, and are triaged by the amount of time a cat has been in a tree and its temperament. Sears says with feral or skittish cats, they’ll sometimes advise people to give it a couple of days, as some cats do come down on their own.
The difficulty of their jobs can vary wildly. Sears said some cats will be stranded at the very tippy top of a conifer, like a star on a Christmas tree. Their highest rescue was 170 feet up, according to Sears.
A few years back, a cat named Slint evaded rescue by jumping between three or four trees in a stand of Douglas firs as Otto tried to reach him. Otto eventually got wise and sawed off branches the cat was using as bridges. “When I got to him he was like [purrs] ‘Hey, Buddy!’ ”
The day after the relatively easy Iris rescue, Sears faced a far more difficult extrication.
Ludo, a fluffy white Persian cat, was meowing from way up — probably 65 or 70 feet — in a maple tree in Seattle’s Dearborn Park, barely visible from the forested floor. The slightly swaying branches looked fine to support Ludo’s weight. But a human?
“This one’s an issue, just where he is in the tree. It’s not super thick up there,” Sears said, sizing up the maple before strapping on his climbing gear, including ropes, carabiners and spiked shoes. Sears says he and Otto like to assign each rescue a difficulty rating. If Iris was a 1 or 2, Ludo looked like an 8 or a 9.
Ludo was a repeat customer. This was his fifth time getting rescued by Canopy Cat Rescue and the third time in this park.
“It’s not a lesson a cat learns,” Sears said nonjudgmentally. On the bright side, Ludo was not likely to try to flee him. “He kind of knows the drill.”
Cats generally climb high up trees to escape a perceived threat, Sears said. Sometimes it’s people starting them. Sometimes other cats. Sometimes it’s dogs or coyotes.
Hey, Ludo. Hey, buddy. Be right there!” Sears called out.
Jonathan Smith, Ludo’s owner, said he has tried to halt the escapes and installed a “catio” so Ludo can enjoy the outdoor air in an enclosed space. But Ludo darted out the door again a day ago when he and his wife were leaving the house. After that, he wound up in the tree.
“He just gets scared and goes up there and doesn’t come back down,” Smith said, noting he’s heard coyotes howling in the area.
Sears made a plan to scale the maple and rope it together with nearby trees to create more stability. Once he started climbing, the rescue went fairly quickly. Ludo helpfully did not try to get away and even clambered down a little lower.
Once Ludo was safely netted, Sears descended quickly on a rope, dangling in midair and handing the cat off to Smith. “Not as hard as I projected. I’d probably give that one a 6,” he said.
Before leaving the park, Sears pointed to some decomposing poop, identifying it as coyote scat. It appeared like the coyote had dined on something furry, so Sears scanned the scat with a microchip reader.
He noted a 2020 study by the National Park Service and California State University, Northridge which found domestic cat remains in 20% of urban coyotes’ scat.
Fortunately, Sears’ scan found no microchip.
Smith was grateful for Ludo’s latest rescue. “A lifesaver for me and my family,” he said. “Emotional wife, emotional daughter. They’re very attached to Ludo, so just knowing he’s up in the tree overnight is stressful. I can’t get up there.”
Hopefully, he said, this would be Ludo’s final tree adventure, though the cat, asked for comment, was making no promises.
If Ludo gets stranded again, Sears will be back — no problem.
“He could call us 10, 15, 20 times and we’re not going to say no. The cat is going to end up suffering in the tree or he’s going to call somebody else who may not be as good at it,” he said.