Will Climb for Tuna: We Chat With Animal Planet’s “Canopy Cat Rescue” Team


A Catster Hero trophy with a sardine in it.At Canopy Cat Rescue, the team wants the cat in the bag — namely, the tough rescue sack used to transport felines from the heights of a tree to the safety of the ground. Tom Otto and Shaun Sears are certified arborists with a passion for cats who saw a pressing need in their home state of Washington when they started getting frequent calls for cats stuck in trees. The traditional province of the fire department is a job that’s better for a trained arborist, because no one can climb trees like a professional tree-climber.

“This is a beloved member of the family,” says Otto, referring to Canopy Cat Rescue’s no-questions-asked, no-judgment rescue policy. If you have a cat up a tree in most areas in Washington, one of the men will respond. And, he tells me, the two men’s growing profile, including the show Treetop Cat Rescue on Animal Planet, means they get calls from across the country, running a sort of cat advice hotline as they reassure worried cat guardians and calm nerves.

A tabby cat stuck in a tree.

When I talked with Sears about Canopy Cat Rescue’s donation-run group (the two men never charge for calls, on the grounds that “every cat deserves to be rescued”), Otto was out working on a rescue. (The cat was fine, although he made a valiant attempt to take Otto’s eyes out on the way down.) A mountain climber, former forest ranger, and guide, Sears got interested in climbing trees when he started dating Otto’s sister, and it ultimately led him down the path of co-founding Canopy Conservation, a sustainable tree-management firm. Both men, who met and spoke with Catster executive editor Vicky Walker at the recent BarkWorld conference in Atlanta, are animal lovers. Sears has two cats and two dogs, while Otto has one cat and two dogs. Before long, the two men started getting calls of a furry – and more pressing — nature from cat lovers desperate to get their lost kitties out of trees.

“A compassionate cat-in-tree rescuer has to be a cat owner,” Sears said, discussing the multiple cases they see each year.

Recently, he drove two hours to Bellingham, Washington, for an older man on Social Security who was desperate for help — and it wasn’t even his cat. Sears was nervous about encountering a situation that’s not uncommon in cat rescue: not knowing the cat’s history. With a guardian around, either man can go up forewarned about whether cats are friendly, shy, skittish, or aggressive, and he can plan accordingly. A strange cat, though, can be unpredictable, this in addition to the stress of being caught in a tree for hours or days.

A relieved cat guardian hugging his rescued cat.
This cat guardian was reunited with his feline friend thanks to Canopy Cat Rescue.

Fortunately, the Bellingham cat was friendly and affectionate, so Sears got her down without incident. But when he brought her to the organization’s truck to scan her, she didn’t have a microchip — a clear example of why both men are “huge advocates for microchipping.” They encourage cat guardians to make sure their cats are chipped in case of situations like these. Sears started walking down the road, still suited up with his helmet, when a car paused.

“That’s my cat!” the occupant shouted. “That’s Mama Kitty! She’s been missing for five days!”

Canopy Cat rescue is on track to make 400 rescues in Washington state in 2015, Sears tells me. He further explained why arborists are a better choice than firefighters: Fire personnel prefer to focus on fighting fires, they aren’t trained to climb trees, and they are limited by the height of their ladders.

“Often,” he said, “they’ll extend the ladder and the cat will just climb higher.” Higher as in really, really high.


Click here to see Shaun Sears and the rescued cat in the above video.

Treetop Cat Rescue has aired in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Asia in addition to being picked up on the Discovery Channel. The men of Canopy Cat Rescue aren’t just rescuing cats, they’re raising awareness about why cats end up stuck, and what cat owners can do to prevent it. Lost, scared, and confused cats can dart up trees, but they can’t necessarily get down so easily. They may stay for days or even weeks in some cases, crying for help until someone gets them down. Climbing high trees can be unsafe for humans and cats alike, which is where trained personnel with the right gear and cat handling experience come in.

Contrary to popular belief, cats won’t just “come down when they’re hungry,” both men stressed, and this common advice comes from people who should know better, including vets. The men have seen cats reduced to “skin and bones” after as long as three weeks in trees, which is an incredible act of survival given that cats who don’t eat can develop hepatic lipodosis (fatty liver) within days. The condition is quickly fatal.

A Siamese in a cedar.

Instead, they say, if you have a cat stuck up a tree, encouraging it to consider moving downwards is the best move. Sears explains that calling for cats, scratching the trunk, and rattling a treat bag can all sometimes be an effective way to get a cat into reverse gear — thanks to the alignment of cat claws, cats need to climb down backwards, which can be disorienting. Sometimes these steps are all it takes for the pros to get a cat down. Don’t, they both say, leave food at the base of a tree. It will attract surrounding predators, frightening a scared cat even more. And who could blame a cat in that situation? Diving into a shark tank sounds like a terrible idea.

As for preventing unauthorized feline arboreal adventures, Otto says, the best advice is simple: Keep your cat indoors. For indoor-outdoor cats or chronic escapees, putting flashing around tree trunks can discourage climbing by making the surface too slippery. (Bonus: it also deters nibblers such as bunnies, squirrels, and deer.) It’s also important to keep indoor-outdoor cats inside for several weeks after moving, he says, as clients on a number of calls say they’re new to the neighborhood — it’s easy for cats to get spooked when they don’t know where they are and don’t recognize the terrain.

Have a feline climber on your hands and happen to live outside their range? There’s a directory for that.

A long-haired black cat in the arms of a tree climber.
Shaun Sears and friend.

Photos courtesy Canopy Cat Rescue.

About the author: s.e. smith is a cat-owned writer, editor, and agitator living in Northern California with felines Loki and Leila. While not mediating cat fights, s.e. explores a wide variety of subjects in writing and elsewhere, in addition to enjoying reading like a fiend and baking like an angel. Follow smith on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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