The Amazing True Story of the Most Dramatic Cat Rescue in the History of Madison, Wisconsin.
This post is mainly to give the full version of this story to a bunch of friends who watched it unfold in bits and pieces on Facebook – though it’s a ripping yarn for everyone else, too. If you’re a cat owner, or even if not, prepare to be scared, and finally (spoiler alert, in case you missed the title) relieved.
This is a very long post. But hang in there – it’s worth it.
I am not a longtime cat owner. I’ve had my cat, Steve, for about a year and a half, and hadn’t had any pets for more than a decade before that. In fact, I only have him because my awesome girlfriend wanted cats, and one ended up living with each of us.
But Steve is great. He’s a goofball, insatiably curious, and adventurous as hell. I’m a pretty adventurous (read: foolhardy) dude myself, which is why, when I lost my lease unexpectedly, I decided to go on a road trip for a couple of weeks, visiting friends and celebrating the freedom afforded by my newly (marginally) successful freelance writing career. And I figured I would take Steve with me. I mean, what the heck, he’s Adventure Cat.
What you’re about to read is the story of how that great idea turned into a five-day nightmare, and, very nearly, Steve’s slow, horrific end.
I got a preview of the challenges presented by travelling with Adventure Cat when, while visiting my friend Sangeet in Ohio, Steve adventured right out onto a balcony, then jumped down onto a small overhang about ten feet off the ground. He couldn’t jump back up, and didn’t have quite the nerve to jump down, so he sat there and moaned until I went to Ace and bought a $130 ladder to get up there and get him (As you’ll see, some of this is about money, along with many many other things).
So far so good.
After Sangeet’s place, I stopped by Chicago briefly to visit my friend Love (that’s his real first name – he was raised by some cabal of Swedish hippies), then headed on to Madison for two days with Craig, who works at Wisconsin Public Radio. There was some negotiation of the logistics of the visit, because Craig and his fiancée have a cat of their own, Bonnie. I felt a little anxious about imposing on my hosts, but everything seemed like it would be fine. To be on the really safe side, we left Steve on the porch overnight, in his big car kennel, covered in a heavy blanket.
He absolutely did not appreciate this one bit, meowing angrily most of the night.
So the next day, we transferred him to the basement, where he could be inside, but still separated from Bonnie. It’s a weird little space – the house is about 150 years old, and there are all sorts of nooks and crannies down there. So we kept an ear out for a while, but he seemed to prefer the basement to the crate, and we headed out on a tour of Madison.
Madison is fantastic (if you haven’t heard) and we enjoyed a great day, full of beer and food and books. This is like a city built entirely out of the leftover sets from Portlandia sketches, real or imagined: There’s the feminist bookstore (which unlike the one in Portlandia, is actually an awesome bookstore); there’s a tree covered in yarn; there’s the elaborate and insanely convenient bike share system. Not only did we see a controversial piece of anti-police protest art hanging in the public library, we also saw a left-wing realty office with a #blacklivesmatter poster in the window.
I would move here in a heartbeat, if I hadn’t already lived through six Midwestern winters.
When we got home, we went to check on Steve, but he didn’t come running to meet us – which is strange. I pretty much instantly knew something was wrong. When I called for him, I heard his voice from a crawlspace that extended from the basement at ceiling height. Then I noticed a stack of paint cans in a corner that had been knocked over – he’d jumped into the crawlspace.
Goddamn Adventure Cat.
Craig and Liz, reasonably enough, figured that Steve was just a little freaked out by being in a new space, and was hunkering down in a dark corner just to feel secure.
Still, I was worried, mostly because I knew Steve. Steve was not a hider, or a hunkerer. He is, to use the refined language of our hip hop forebears, never skurred. And he was being really talkative, not shy – we exchanged meows in the borderline insane way cats and cat owners do. And weirdly, while Steve’s voice was definitely coming from the crawlspace, it seemed much further away than that it should have – distant and echoey.
Either way, there wasn’t much to do, and he didn’t sound like he was in pain or panicked. Before long, we went to bed, even though I was still feeling uneasy.
Still no sign of Steve. I started to feel some guilt – clearly, if he was hiding for this long, he was more freaked out than I’d figured by being dragged around the country. I checked in and talked to him throughout the day as I worked on an article, and kept shining a flashlight into the dark crawlspace to see if I could spot him. I even went down to the drugstore and bought a hand mirror, which I taped to a broom handle in hopes I could get a better look back in the depths of the space. It didn’t do much good.
Day two of Steve hiding out. I started to get even more worried. I got in my car and was on my way to rent an inspection camera and some lights, hoping to be able to see further down into the depths of the crawlspace. But Craig called me, as I was literally in the car on the way to go totally CSI, to tell me that he had talked to several cat owners who traveled with their cats. According to them, sometimes cats just need a day or two to settle down. We should just leave him be, and he’d come out in his own time.
Once again, I set aside what I was pretty sure I knew about my cat – that he wasn’t very likely to be hiding from anything – and turned back around, ready to keep waiting. Steve was still calling out from the crawlspace.
I did call animal control and talk to them. Nothing they could do unless they could see the animal, they told me.
Day 3 – the day I made the mistake of going on the internet and googling “How long can cats survive without water.” I was now positive he was trapped somehow. I woke up nervous that I might not hear from him again. What I read on various message boards set me off – if we were in day 3, we were close to the end. He could already be suffering liver and kidney damage, and could be dead soon.
The strange thing was, when he meowed – and he meowed all day – he still didn’t sound like he was in pain, panicking, or otherwise deeply distressed. He mostly sounded . . . annoyed.
Even weirder was that even though he was meowing like the dickens about every three hours, we couldn’t tell where the hell the sound was coming from. The space under the floorboards was only about a foot deep, and the area of the crawlspace was maybe twenty feet by ten feet – it ran under just a small kitchen and bathroom. But Steve sounded like he was impossibly far away – sometimes almost like he was outside of the house. This weird sound made it harder for us to guess where he was, which made it harder to point our lights and cameras in the right direction, which meant we had no idea how to free him.
By now, Craig and Liz were plenty worried, too. We started exchanging theories about what had happened to him. Maybe he was wedged behind something, maybe he had pushed his way between the walls and couldn’t back out.
That afternoon, I rented a Flir thermal camera from Home Depot – heat-sensing, like the Predator. I thought maybe I’d see a cat-shaped hot spot as soon as I pointed it at the floor – but unfortunately, it turns out thermal doesn’t really go through walls any more than it goes through mud.
I also finally rented the fiber-optic camera I’d set out to get on Tuesday, and started shoving it down vents and cracks.
By now, I was nearing panic. I got the name of a carpenter from the Animal Control office, and we started seriously talking about how to dig up the bathroom floor, above where we thought we were hearing Steve meow.
But then, sensibly enough, Craig and Liz got in touch with their landlord to let her know what was going on. She, again sensibly enough, didn’t want anyone tearing up the floor of her house if it could be helped, especially since it was an older and strangely built house. There was no way she’d approve the guy recommended by Animal Control to work on the house – especially not that night, which was what I’d been hoping. It seemed everything would have to wait until the next morning, when she would, hopefully, be able to get the handyman who had worked on the house for years.
All very sensible. Except that 8pm that night was when the 3 day mark passed for Steve. I was convinced that if we couldn’t get him out that night, he was definitely dead. So at around 9, while Craig and Liz were out of the house, I sat down in the basement, as close to where I thought he was as I could get, and I apologized to him.
I’m sorry I got you into this mess, buddy, I said. And I’m going to miss you. Then I cried for quite a while. I don’t know if I had at that point come to terms with his death – that would take a lot longer. But I had at least accepted it.
But then the damnedest thing happened.
In the morning, after I had said goodbye to him, Steve was talking again. Still not in pain. Still hard to pinpoint, but still not panicked. Still sounding strong.
Maybe, somehow, the internet had lied to me. He was still alive. And, it seemed, okay.
And then the landlord, Jane, let us know that she and her contractor, Tom, were on their way over. Tom had been working on the place for nearly two decades, since before Jane owned it. Tom heard Steve, but he was just as puzzled about where he was as the rest of us. But he understood the mysteries of drywall and paneling.
And so, with little ceremony, we started taking the house apart.
We knocked holes in the masonry foundation to access the crawlspace from the back. We cut a giant square out of the bottom of a kitchen cabinet, then drilled through to the crawlspace from above. We took the panel off the back of the tub, to make sure Steve wasn’t somehow stuck inside the tub. We took a panel off a wall, then drilled through the board separating the wall from the crawlspace.
In each case, we used the fiber optic camera to scan every possible direction for a sign of the cat. We got into every nook and cranny.
Then things started to get weird. Craig went to Best Buy and picked up a Parrot, a wheeled drone with a camera. The drone could only really move on flat surfaces, so we wedged boards as deep as we could into the crawlspace, and sent the drone in.
But for all that, we couldn’t find Steve. Not a sign. I spotted some dried poop with the fiber optic camera, but that was it.
We kept hearing his voice, on and off, and it still sounded both like it was coming from the crawlspace, and like it was far away.
Soon, everyone was exhausted. We’d done everything we could do. Craig and Liz had a 5k the next day, and decided to get a hotel room.
I was pretty confounded. I’d already mourned my cat’s death, and there he was, still very much alive – if, maybe, existing in some sort of strange extraspatial limbo. It made me think of the book House of Leaves, one part of which is the story of a family who discover their house opens up into a space that shouldn’t exist. Steve, it seemed, had fallen down a hallway into nothingness.
If he’d stayed alive this long, though, I was beginning to think we would find him. He did have a pretty badass, determined team on his side. I talked to him more that night, but I didn’t cry.
Craig won his 5k. He got a little wooden medal.
Then everyone convened at the house again – Tom, Jane, Craig, Liz, and I. We were all tired, a little wired. But everyone kept going. I can’t say how grateful I still am for everyone’s energy. It’ll always be an amazing memory for me.
The thing that kept confounding us, no matter how many angles we approached from, was one pile of bricks in the center of the crawlspace. We couldn’t get any true sense of whether it might be more than a pile of bricks.
Then Craig had his second big win of the day. He used some extra-strong Gorilla tape to attach his iPhone to a long strip of 1 by 2. Then he used Apple TV to connect it to the upstairs monitor as he stuck it back into the crawlspace below. The fiber optic camera just couldn’t go quite that far.
And that was when it happened.
We all stood upstairs, yelling down to help guide Craig’s camera over the top of the pile of bricks, through a gap of just a few inches between its edge and the floor above. And then we saw –
There was an opening. There was some kind of hole, or pit, opening down from the top of that pile of bricks.
And then, as Tom, Jane, Liz and I stood watching the feed upstairs, a pair of curious green eyes flashed up from that hole. Then they turned away and disappeared.
We all screamed, cursed, jumped, and swore. We’d found him.
My knees buckled and my stomach flipped. He was still there – and he was still moving.
Of course, just finding him felt like a victory – but we still had to get him out. As we considered that, we also spent a few moments considering just what the hell we were looking at.
Tom was confident it was a cistern – a deep tank that had been used to collect rainwater for the workers who lived here back in the 1850s. The kitchen and bath had been added on out back without completely filling or adequately covering the cistern.
So Steve, being a natural born idiot, had been exploring the crawlspace, and jumped into the dark open hole.
This also explained why Steve had sounded so weird. Not only was he genuinely a lot farther away than we thought – he was in a space shaped more or less like a bell. As he moved around the bottom of the cistern, the sound bounced in wildly different directions around the house.
We figured out that the cistern was roughly centered under a bathroom vanity, so that got ripped out. We used the fiber optic camera to find the edges of the cistern once a few holes had been drilled, then Tom did the amazingly persistent work of cutting a larger hole through – no joke – six inches of floor, made of several layers of plywood.
Then we had a hole big enough to see into. I got down on my belly and stuck my head down, and was amazed to see Steve looking more or less unscathed. We did a little catching up. Then, unbelievably, he started trying to jump out.
Five days underground, and he somehow still had the strength to make a four-foot vertical leap. What a beast. (No dice, though, of course – the walls of the cistern neck were concrete.)
But we still had a serious problem – the cistern was at least six, maybe more like eight feet deep, and we only had a tiny hole to access it. We were going to need help getting Steve out. Now that we could see him, we could call Animal Control – who, I have to be blunt, were not very helpful. The agent came over, surveyed the situation, and then left us a selection of nets and traps and basically told us to figure it out on our own.
But we’d come this far, so we weren’t going to be stopped by a lackadaisical public servant. One of the nets actually did prove crucial – a rig that opened and closed with a pull, which we’d need to get the net down into the small hole. We put an open can of food in it, lowered it, opened it, and hoped Steve would get the hint to crawl in.
He was both smarter and dumber than that. He sniffed the food and, somehow, didn’t seem that interested. I tried a few times just to net him, but there wasn’t enough leverage through the tiny hole. But then Steve took the initiative, and started trying to climb the pole.
Mind you, this was an aluminum pole, so he wasn’t likely to get very far. But then I had my own brainstorm, and just started slowly pulling the net up – and Steve latched onto the fabric netting itself. I wasn’t sure he would make it. We panted and stretched and levered . . .
And then he was out. I took one look at him, and thought – this son of a bitch is totally fine. I was glad to see him, of course. But I realized he would never really appreciate what he had put me through. Which is, you know, cats in a nutshell.
I immediately put him in his carrier and whisked him to the vet, where an exam and bloodwork showed that he was completely fine. Our best theory was that there must have been water, and maybe some bugs, down in that cistern.
From there, we went to a hotel room, where I had to fervently pray that there wasn’t a well under one of the beds.
Two weeks later, Steve is still, by all signs, completely fine. We’re still looking for a permanent place to stay in St. Pete, but we’ve continued to find that people are eager to help out.
I doubt he’s learned a damn thing.
I want to give a few shout outs and plugs.
First and foremost, to Tom Potter and Jane Pawasarat. Tom is an amazing contractor who has worked in central Madison for decades. He’s an amazing problem solver, and we couldn’t have done it without him. He’s like the A-Team – if you need him, you can find him.
Jane is, I’m positive, an incredible landlord and community member. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had had to watch my house getting torn up. She didn’t just tolerate it – she was on Steve’s team the whole time.
Equally first and foremost are Craig and Liz, who were incredibly supportive and managed, somehow, to make me feel more or less okay about the immense disruption I’d caused to their lives. They chipped in both emotionally and materially – Craig’s techy gearheadedness was, after all, what ultimately cracked the case.
The eastern office of the Madison Emergency Veterinary Clinic did bloodwork on Steve after we pulled him out, and were able to confirm that, by whatever freak circumstance, he was totally fine. The only slight damage was that his claws were worn down by trying to jump and claw his way up a concrete frickin’ wall. But even they weren’t actually injured.
(I also can’t help taking this opportunity to contrast these vets’ great work with that of Blue Pearl Clinic in Tampa. Madison Emergency gave me an on-call exam and slate of blood tests for $200 on a Saturday night. A year ago, Blue Pearl bilked me out of $480 for a heart exam Steve didn’t even need. Never take an animal there.)
We also had some advice from Troy Bakken, a Madison carpenter and cabinetworker who was very helpful.
A to Z Rent All in Madison rented us the camera.
Madison’s Roman Candle Pizza gave us a great discount when I told them the pies were for a pet rescue in progress.
And the web and technology gurus at ThinkTank in St. Pete have basically made my long series of questionable lifestyle choices possible.
And Finally, The Ask
Yeah, there’s a bit of an ask here. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story long enough to stick around for it.
Here’s the deal: I’m a freelance writer. I’m relatively new to the game, but I love it – it’s what I’m meant to do. And I’m doing fairly well.
But it’s hard to write when you’re trying to rescue your cat from a well. Steve’s misadventure cost me about a week of work, on top of the direct expenses of renting various kinds of equipment, a couple of unexpected hotel nights, the vet, etc. All in all, the cost was substantial.
What I’m asking is this. If you need, or know anyone who might need, writing services, consider me. Maybe you need a grant written, or a press release. Maybe you need help telling a story just as crazy as this one, or just a few blog posts. Having a little more work coming my way would make it easier for me to cover the financial gap Steve opened up (and then jumped down).
My rates are reasonable. You can find out more at davidzmorris.com.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it.