Tree climbing 101 for saving a furry friend

I’m glad tree climbing is undoubtedly a form of outdoor recreation, because I have a story to tell.

Disclaimer: I’m not encouraging people to climb trees. I’m just not confident in everyone’s tree climbing skills.

Two days ago, I was doing a little writing while sitting in my backyard. My Bengal cat (a semi-exotic, spotted house cat) named Bo was outside with me enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Bo has to stay on a harness and long leash for a few reasons. 1) I don’t want him to get run over by a car, living so close to a main road. 2) I don’t want him to get eaten by any wild animals, something that happened to three of my previous cats. 3) Bengal breeders advise against letting your Bengals free outside because they might be stolen. (Bengals are rather pretty and expensive, as house cats go.)

I’ve brought Bo outside on a leash for the two years he’s lived with me. I don’t think it’s fair that he can’t enjoy the outdoors just because I’m a paranoid pet owner. And he is usually well behaved. He sits in the grass and runs after bees.

I think you know where this is heading.

A car rolled into the driveway, scared Bo, and he took off running. I keep
the harness pretty loose – too loose, I guess. He slipped right out, found a tree at the corner of the property and zipped right up the trunk. Near the top, about 20 feet up, he realized that he couldn’t get down.

I resumed my writing. Don’t you dare call me cruel. I just don’t understand why my cat can climb so easily up a tree and then not be able to get down. It seems like most cats climb up and down trees without a problem. I just thought I’d give him a chance to figure it out.

I have to admit, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Last summer, he climbed the same tree and couldn’t seem to find a way down. My neighbors lent me a ladder to get him down without much hassle.

This time I was alone. Bo started to whine. And I knew he wasn’t going to figure it out any time soon. After all, he’s primarily an indoor cat.

I didn’t have a ladder, so I headed inside and grabbed some supplies – a bag of dry cat food and a can of juicy morsels. I changed into jeans, sneakers (good footwear is a must for all tree climbers) and a leather jacket — because once I got ahold of that little guy, he would probably scratch the crap out of my arms in panic.

First, I tried enticing him to descend by making a racket with the bag of dry cat food and waving about an open can of wet food, hoping that the heavenly scent of sliced chicken hearts and liver feast in gravy.

According to wikiHow, this is the second step to “How to Get a Cat Out of a Tree.”

That didn’t work. I couldn’t even see him, he was so high up and covered by foliage.

It’s not wise to climb a tree with no one else around, but my fellow tenants were home. After all, it was their car that scared him in the first place. And one of my neighbors was peeking over the fence next door, of course. I wasn’t technically alone — just alone in the sense that no one was offering to help me. If I twisted an ankle, I’m confident I could persuade them to call 911. So I climbed the tree.

After climbing up about 10 feet, I spotted Bo’s wide golden eyes staring down at me from above. There was no way for me to safely climb any farther. I wedged my feet into a few branchpits, leaned against the trunk and spent the next 20 minutes trying to coax him down. Overhead, Bo made little progress. He managed to turn around, showering me with bugs, torn leaves and twigs. But trying to descend the vertical trunk headfirst wasn’t working out for him. I knew it. He knew it.

By the time I started telling him what branch to step on, I realized all my talk and encouraging sounds were doing no good.

I realized he needed something diagonal instead of vertical to climb down, so I searched around the yard, all the while listening to his desperate meows accompanied by his brother, Arrow, meowing from the window. (And by the way, Arrow is a regular old house cat that I adopted from the local humane society … and he loves his brother Bo very much.) Stressful.

I found an old board, the long crossbeam of a fence that had been recently replaced. Returning to the tree, I lifted the board and maneuvered it through the branches until I had one end resting on a branch near the bottom of the tree and the other end resting on a branch much higher, close to Bo.

He took one look at my makeshift ramp and decided against it. Nevertheless, my efforts encouraged him to scrabble down the trunk a few more feet. Then he was stuck again.

With a sigh, I climbed up the tree again, braced myself with my legs and grabbed the board, thinking if I made the ramp more horizontal, he might give it a try. Up above me, he reconsidered the ramp and even tentatively put his paw on it … but it took several minutes (and a cramp in my arm from holding the board above my head) until he finally decided to give it a try. Instead of gingerly walking down the board, as you imagine a cat would be capable of, he walked onto it and promptly slipped.

Bo has all of his claws (to be honest, they’re a bit too long). So he had no problem digging them into the board to stop his fall. With Bo clinging to the board, I decided to simply pull the board down toward me. But as soon as I started moving the board down, Bo panicked and leapt onto the closest branch. The makeshift ramp fell to the ground.

But finally, he was low enough for me to reach. I climbed up a few more feet (a little too high for comfort) and reached my hand out to pet his soft fur in an effort to calm him. He was low enough to jump and not be injured, but he didn’t realize that. He also wouldn’t let me simply pluck him off the branch, but fiercely clung to the bark with all four paws. I looked down and realized, even if I did manage to pry him off the branch, we might both fall from the tree if I tried to climb down with him fighting in my arms. Nevertheless, I grabbed him by the fur at the back of his neck (since this doesn’t hurt cats and is often the best way to deal with an unruly feline) and tried to pull him from the tree several times.

WikiHow, in step 6 of “How to Get a Cat out of a Tree,” suggests to place the cat inside something like a cat carrier or bag before attempting to climb down the tree. I didn’t think of that, but that’s a good idea.

For me, only one option remained. I would have to push him off the branch.

Bo was low enough to escape injury, but it still felt wrong as I slowly started to push him from his perch. Fortunately, he realized what I was trying to do and decided that he’d rather jump with dignity than be shoved out of the tree. With one final push, Bo jumped and gracefully landed on the ground.

I scooped him up and carried him inside, where we both worked at ridding our hair (or fur) of bark bits, eager to forget the frustrating ordeal. Bo wasn’t hurt, in fact, he shadowed me for the rest of the day and slept by my feet that night.

(To my coworkers at the BDN: You knew I was going to figure out a way to talk about my cats in my blog one of these days.)

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at