The cat is a up a tree. He’s been up there for 20+ hours. Cats climb trees. They get stuck in trees. They make their way down eventually. Except he’s up a tree because two dogs I chose to foster tried to kill him. He spent the night nearly as high as possible (a good 10 to 15 feet higher than the telephone poles in the neighborhood). We spent a good part of the evening looking out the window, seeking visual confirmation of his giant kidney-bean silhouette every 20 minutes. The arborist might come out for a $700 “emergency visit” except we’re not really in their service area.

The cat wants to come down. He mews pathetically when he sees us or we call to him. It starts as a MEHRL-MEHRL-MEHRL with a little pause in between each one, but soon sounds like a nonstop, anthropomorphized HEHRLP-HEHRLP-HEHRLP. My son is anxious. My wife is anxious. He lost at least 3 claws fighting off the dogs. He’s damn lucky my wife was there to tackle the 120 lb. shepherd mix that had him around the neck. He looks exhausted. Like all he wants to do is sleep. I tell my son it’s really an engineering problem. We brainstorm: Can we climb the tree? Not really. We could maybe get a third of the way to where he is. Do we have a ladder or anything else that would reach him? No. Could we get a basket or cat carrier to him? On a rope? We could tie a rope to an arrow and shoot it over the nearest branch. Maybe not. With our luck, we’d shoot the cat with the arrow. Instead, we go out every 30 minutes to see if he’s moved. To say things like “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.” And the sing-songy version of his name: “James Bonnnnddddd”. He replies HEHRLP-HEHRLP-HEHRLP. There is a tone of plaintive desperation in his cries and they begin to fail, to get a little raspy like his throat is sore or he’s dehydrated.

I first thought he was just being stubborn since I’d seen him come down from a big tree before, but I read online how hard it actually is for a cat to come down and when I climb 10 feet into the tree, I realize how smooth the bark is. I wedge myself between a “V” formed by the main trunk and another branch–one foot pushing on the trunk so my back is pressed against the other branch. My wife gets him to come down 10 feet or so by leading him with a laser pointer. He’s still a good 20 to 30 feet away from me. When’s the last time I climbed a tree? My ankles don’t appreciate these type of angles the way they once did. I attempt to verbally entice and cajole the cat. It is apparent we both want the same thing but the distance between us is too great.

I go back inside. I go back outside. I repeat this once every 20 to 30 minutes for the next couple of hours. I really don’t know the extent of his injuries. The longer he’s up there, the more tired he’s going to get, the more likely he’ll fall… My son is pacing. It’s a cat in a tree. Right? Happens every day probably. Except it feels like an emergency. It feels like we let this family member down. Like we promised to care for him and then let some house guests strangle him. What if I could get to him? How would I get him down? Would he let me pick him up? Would I be able to do this with only one hand? That cat weighs close to 20 lbs. If I could sling a duffel bag over my shoulder and get him into that…

Something in my head says “Enough. You did this. You fix it. Go get the cat.” I put on a long sleeve shirt and gloves. I grab a large duffel bag. The extension ladder is placed against my neighbor’s tree, which sticks out diagonally over a hill. The ladder rests parallel to the main diagonal branch which is about a foot wide. The rungs rest on the middle of the branch with just enough room for me to step on either side of the branch–this also means the branch is a pivot point for the ladder. Note to self: Keep weight even. Must emerge from this without hurting myself or cat. How many situations have I been in where I think this same ridiculous thought?: My wife is going to kill me if I kill myself. Too many. The higher up the ladder I go, the more wobbly it becomes. The cat is still about 15 feet away. There’s no way for me to climb that gap. But he senses a rescue is in order. He starts with HEHRLP-HEHRLP-HEHRLP more urgently. He tentatively tries to move toward me. The first five feet are easy because there’s another branch bifurcation where he can rest. “Good kitty. Good kitty.” Positive reinforcement one octave higher than my normal speaking voice. He tries the next descent but it’s a steep 5 ft. section before another bifurcation. I open the duffle bag wide and point to it–try to make it look like a big landing area. Time has ceased to exist. It feels like one of those dramatic animal rescues on television where the dog is seconds away from slipping off the rocky ledge and being carried away by roiling river waters. Except it’s just a suburban weekday and death is unlikely. Serious injury is, however, highly likely at this point. “You can do it.” I say. “Come on.” He had nestled into the crook and was panting, but stands up again. He tentatively places a paw or two, but they slip. He has to just go for it. He slides a bit and then somehow makes it to the next crook.

We’re just 5 ft. apart. There’s only one more rung for me to step up. This will net me one more foot. Both straps for the duffel are over my right shoulder–I slide one down to the elbow of my right arm and open the bag as wide as I can. I point to it. “Yes you can.” I say. He mews. His eyes are huge and they burrow into mine and it’s like we’re connected mentally. I can hear his thoughts directly in my head and he’s saying: “This? This is your fucking plan?!!” There’s a smaller branch somewhat behind me over my left shoulder. I reach back and grab this with my left hand, I step to the last rung, squeezing the tree branch with the insides of each foot. James Bond is yelling at me. We’re so close. What if he jumps on my head or claws my face. I’m envisioning us falling out of  the tree together but I banish the image before we can hit the ground. There’s still about two feet between us with me reaching as far as I can. I remind myself to breathe. Everything in life is easier when you breathe. (Go ahead. Take a deep breath before you find out if anybody survives this ridiculous ordeal.) I reach for the cat with my right hand. He stretches his head toward my hand. We’re still about 6 inches apart. He has to start to descend and I have to grab him as he does. The bag is wide open against the tree. “Come on. I gotcha. I gotcha.” He looks me in the eye one last time and starts to slip/fall toward me. I grab him by the scruff of the neck with my right hand and lower him into the duffel bag off that same elbow. Gravity is my biggest friend as his weight pulls the bag low and closed. Please just let him stay in the bag. I hoist the strap up over my shoulder and squeeze the top shut with my hand.

We descend very slowly. I carry him into the house where we rejoice in his return and he emerges from the bag tired and confused, but just as relieved as the rest of us. I did not know any of us cared this much about the cat. We sometimes called him “Steve the Asshole” due to his aggression. But he’s treated like a missing child finally found. Like one of the family finally come home.