Linus the cat had been stuck in a tree for five days by the time his owner, Debbie Bitts, contacted Tom Otto.
The Bitts family, of Graham, Wash., had tried everything to coax their 3-year-old tabby down. They left food at the base of the tree, and even called the fire department — but the ladder wasn’t long enough to reach him. Bitts called three cat-rescue services, but no one called her back.
But when she e-mailed Otto, who runs Canopy Cat Rescue with his brother-in-law, he came the next morning. Linus was down within the hour.
“It was fast,” recalls Bitts. “Tom got up, and he was able to lean over and pet Linus. Then he said that Linus sort of walked around to him, so Tom cradled him under his arms and then, like a rock climber, he was down in seconds.”
Otto and his co-rescuer, Shaun Sears, are both rock climbers. They’re also certified arborists who run a separate company, Canopy Conservation, and both work as mountain guides on Mount Rainier in the summertime.
But the majority of what they do these days is rescue cats — for free.
At first, they charged a set rate for each rescue, but “folks would call and ask about the rate and get super depressed,” remembers Sears. Both he and Otto are animal lovers, and they just couldn’t stand the thought of cats remaining stuck in trees because no one could afford to get them down. So these days, they operate on donations.
“People pay if they can, but the majority of folks we do cat rescues for can’t pay anything,” says Sears. “If they’re completely broke, we’ll help them out.”
Sears and Otto estimate that they have rescued about 250 cats in the six years they’ve been at it. They work in the dark, in the rain and on holidays. They’ve even been known to save up to three cats a day.
Lots of treed cats eventually come down on their own, but there are plenty who can’t. “Cats' claws are curved, and they have very strong hind legs, which is great for climbing up, but makes it difficult to get down,” explains Dr. Rachel Robinson, a veterinarian in Redmond, Wash.
Canopy Cat Rescue handles stuck kitties all over the Puget Sound region. Sears, who lives in North Bend, Wash. usually covers the North Sound, while Otto, who lives in Olympia, has the South covered. They try to mesh their schedules so one of them is always available.
The two generally use a “big shot,” a slingshot-type tool that lets them get a weighted line up over a high branch in the tree. From there, they can pull a rope over the branch, Sears says. “We climb the rope as high as needed and then swing over to reach the cat.”
Amazingly, neither has ever been scratched during a rescue. “The bigger hazard is being peed on,” laughs Sears.
They’ve had their share of memorable rescues — Sears once saved a cat stuck under an overpass in downtown Seattle, and Otto cites a recent rescue, in below-freezing temperatures, where the cat nearly landed on his head.
“Once I got her, she was shivering cold, so I held her for a little bit,” he says. “Her body felt cold. It made me feel good about getting her.”
Sears and Otto regularly post rescue pictures on their Facebook page — frantic felines meowing for help and grateful kitties snuggling their heroes.
"The pictures inspire a lot of folks that there’s people who care enough to climb into a tree and rescue a cat, whether it’s Thanksgiving, or two in the morning," says Sears. "It lets people know that there are folks out there willing to help out cats."
And for pet owners like Bitts, Sears and Otto's dedication makes all the difference.
“They don’t have to do this," she says. "And they do it with smiles, for the whole thing. From beginning to end."