Battle Ground man climbs to cats' rescue

Retiree plucks them from trees after they get stuck

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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photoMarqus Carrillo of Vancouver releases a cat from a bag used to rescue it from a tree on April 30.

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Perched more than 30 feet high in a red maple tree, Tom Croley lowers a squirming canvas bag down a rope to the safety of Jake Bennett's arms.

The stray cat in the bag had been trapped at the top of the tree in Bennett's front yard in Vancouver for three consecutive days, haunting the 29-year-old Bennett with its cries.

"I was admiring how brave Tom was, how calm he was, how easily he climbed up," Bennett marveled afterwards.

For Croley, the rescue was just another fun day of retirement.

"It's an adventure," he said.

The 65-year-old's novel hobby of rescuing cats stemmed from a do-it-yourself yard project he did more than a decade ago at his Old Town Battle Ground home.

Croley learned his tree-climbing skills after some tree-service businesses gave him estimates of $8,000 to $10,000 to fell more than 50 dying poplar trees in his yard.

The poplars were about 100 feet tall, and the task involved climbing the trees and cutting each one down in pieces from the top down.

Croley couldn't stomach the prices the companies were charging, so he decided to learn how to do the job himself.

"I studied books about trimming and books about climbing trees," he said. "I bought all of the equipment, and over a period of four years, I cut all of the trees."

During that period, a friend of a friend, who learned of his new skill, contacted him and asked if he could rescue his cat from a tree in Battle Ground. Croley agreed to do the favor and pulled the job off with one major complication.

"I learned a lot on that rescue because as soon as we got the cat down and let him out of the bag, he immediately ran into another tree," Croley said. "It was a learning experience and very humorous."

That taught Croley to release cats indoors after a rescue to give them time to calm down.

"Word got around, and I've been rescuing cats ever since," he said.

Some Clark County emergency dispatchers now give his number to callers who seek help for cats stuck in trees.

In the past 10 years, he said he's whisked more than 100 distressed felines out of trees. In 2008, he retired as a glazier at Battle Ground Glass and found more time for his heroic pastime.

Fire departments stopped providing cat rescue services years ago.

Clark County Fire & Rescue doesn't rescue cats out of trees, because such operations are dangerous and unnecessary, said department spokesman Tim Dawdy.

"While it seems very glamorous, it's not really necessary," Dawdy said. "Cats always get down on their own. Have you ever seen a dead cat in a tree?"

Croley agrees that most cats don't need to be rescued. However, there's still a need for his services, if only to prevent cat owners from climbing trees on their own to help Fluffy. Cat rescues carry great risk, and lack of proper training and equipment increases that danger.

"You really rescue the cat for the owner's sake more than the cat's," Croley said. "Cats can stay in a tree for 14 to 15 days. Owners get panicked and might try to climb the tree."

That's exactly what Bennett, of Vancouver, planned to do until his cousin, Marqus Carrillo, persuaded him not to.

"I had to help the cat out," Bennett said. "Luckily, Marqus was here to talk some sense into me."

Bennett pulled out a ladder and tried to feed the cat, while Carrillo held the ladder's base.

"He said, 'I don't think this is a good idea. I love you, man. I understand why you want to help, but discretion is the best part of valor,'" Bennett recounted.

Bennett found Croley's number by calling 911's non-emergency line.

Croley came to Bennett's house the next day with his equipment and secured a rope around a sturdy limb near the gray and brown calico's delicate perch toward the top of the tree and scooted up in a climbing harness.

Once he reached the cat, he pulled it, hissing and scratching, into a canvas bag to prevent injury to him and the cat as he lowered it down to Bennett.

The calico didn't have an apparent owner and didn't have tags.

Bennett took her into his garage and released her, then left her alone so she could acclimate to the new environment.

When Croley and Bennett peeked inside to see how she was doing, she appeared to be missing. They searched the garage for about 10 minutes without finding the cat.

That prompted Croley to name the cat "Phantom" in his blog, where he chronicles most of his cat rescues.

Rescues typically take an hour to an hour and a half. Croley bagged "Phantom" in about 45 minutes.

His longest rescue took six hours because that cat, Polly, kept running away from him onto different branches of the tree. Croley had ascended about 45 feet when Polly bounded up another 20 feet.

Croley charges a flat fee of $65 for each rescue but says that doesn't cover the cost of his equipment and risk to his life. He said he mostly enjoys helping frustrated cat owners.

"It's always nice to get someone's kitty down and make them feel better," Croley said.

He doesn't charge if he doesn't rescue the cat. That happened once when a cat jumped out of a tree and ran away.

"It was healthy enough to run off with gusto," Croley said.

Bennett said later that he found "Phantom" inside a box, and one of his friends in Vancouver adopted her. She's named "Maple" for the tree where Bennett found her.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.