Fla fire dept. says no to cat rescue

Animal service official says treed cats are not usually an emergency

By Patty Ryan
The Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — The cries started Tuesday in Southeast Seminole Heights. One man heard and told another. A kitten was stuck in a palm, 35 feet up.

Any first-grader would know what to do, just from watching TV. Call the fire department.

"I called the fire department," said Adam Rivera, 26. "And they said they don't do that."

Hiss. Pffwhat?

For two days, Rivera and his girlfriend's brother, Joshua Holtackers, turned everywhere they could to help a cat that wasn't even theirs.

"It's not a human life," Holtackers said, "but it's a life."

They called Tampa police. Hills-borough County Animal Services. Tree trimmers. One offered to help for $250. They called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Government agencies.

Rivera traded emails with the St. Francis Society, put an ad on Craigslist and a note on his Facebook page. The first suggestion to appear: "Fire department."

Not Tampa's.

"If they know how to go up there, they can get down," said Capt. Lonnie Benniefield.

It would take Holtackers, Rivera, Facebook, an uncle, a Buddhist, a grad student, a palm tree trimmer and assorted friends, but help was on its way.

Maybe it would be different if dalmatians climbed oaks, but fire departments are not of one accord on matters of treed cats.

There's an expression among firefighters. The wording varies, but the sentiment is this:

"Have you ever seen a dead cat in a tree?" asked Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

"They get up there, yeah, they meow, but they eventually get down on their own."

Hillsborough, like Tampa, doesn't take cat calls. It's a different response across the bay.

"We do respond to cats in trees," said St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue Lt. Joel Granata.

The agency answers all calls for service, he said, unless they're from the wrong jurisdiction.

Firefighters put on gloves and try to grab a cat if possible, he said. If not, they'll hold a waist-high tarp below and shake the branch from above.

"It's safe," he said. "Super safe. We've never had an injured cat."

Pasco and Hernando county fire departments leave it up to the discretion of the crew to decide whether a rescue is safe.

Treed cats aren't usually an emergency, Hillsborough Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan said. If left alone, they find a way down.

"Cats are amazing talented survival wizards," she said.

Animal Services tells people to keep dogs away and put food and water at the base of the tree.

Rivera tried that.

It didn't work.

Rivera, who works at the iHospital on Kennedy Boulevard fixing electronics, put up his Facebook posting Thursday morning.

"If anybody has a suggestion on how to get a cat down," he wrote, "help a brother out."

His uncle saw the note.

The uncle let others know.

One of the people he contacted was Frank Tedesco, a Buddhist spiritual leader and educator.

Tedesco called Joan Zacharias, 54. She's a University of South Florida graduate student who telecommutes to a media company job in New York. She's also an animal lover.

She learned about the young man in Southeast Seminole Heights who had done all he could to help a stranger's cat.

He had called tree trimmers.

But he had not called her tree trimmer.

"She said, 'I'll pay you whatever you want if you go get this cat out of a tree,'?" said Javier Ochoa of Palms by MCI Tree Care.

Ochoa finished the job he was on and headed with his crew to the palm tree at 10th Street and E Osborne Avenue. They climbed a 32-foot-ladder and plucked the kitten from the palm fronds.

Late in the afternoon, the cat landed on solid ground.

Ochoa turned away the money.

"It was my good deed for the day," he said.

Rivera had just one more good deed ahead of him. The black cat, perhaps 5 months old, would be named Moonlander.

He snapped a photo and signed onto Facebook again.

He wrote this:

"Who would like a cat friend?"

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