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Jeremy the Free Falling Cat

The true story of the rescue of a cat named Jeremy from the tallest tree in London.

This was the third time that I had returned to Woodberry Down Estate on the Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park where a young tabby cat named Jeremy had decided to climb up what was probably the tallest tree in North London. I was hoping that he had decided to make some kind of attempt to rescue himself by coming down the tree of his own accord, but no there he was still up at the very top plaintively calling for help. Being called out to such unusual situations was part and parcel of my job as an RSPCA emergency service officer in the early 1970’s working for a small specialist unit tasked with coming to the aid of trapped and distressed animals all over Greater London at night and weekends.

      The tree was situated between a pair of six storey apartment blocks and was actually taller than them. On the perception that nothing was done to help him I had been barraged with telephone calls by the owner of the cat and residents of the apartments which had gradually become more abusive. Because of this I had been regularly monitoring the situation by going to check on the cat and each time I had to run the gauntlet of angry residents.     

It was the policy at the time, in collaboration with the fire brigade, to leave a cat up a tree or in a similar predicament for at least 48 hours if safe to do so, in order to give it a chance to come down of its own accord and the fire brigade directed members of the public who telephoned them to the RSPCA who were tasked with deciding whether the animal required immediate assistance. They would normally only attend if requested by the RSPCA as quite often the fire brigade wasted their valuable time by attending, only for the cat to take fright and come down the tree at the sight and sound of a large fireman banging a ladder against the tree. This was a very controversial decision as who knew what might happen if an animal was left in a precarious situation for too long and put us in an invidious situation. There could also be situations where attempting to rescue them could put the rescuer and the cats’ life in danger. The theory was that hunger or possibly bad weather would give the cat an incentive to come down. This delay never went down well with the owner of the cat or the general public who could see and hear a cat pitifully mewing from above. I always felt sorry for the animal of course, but it was amazing how many cats got into such a situation and it was impossible to attend them all.

Jeremy on his precarious perch

When I returned for the third time, it was obvious that Jeremy was not going to come down by his own endeavours. In fact, he had now migrated to the very top of the tree. Being a very tall thin tree, he was actually swaying around in the breeze and really looked terrified. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible to avoid confrontation with the owner or interested parties, but as I looked around there were groups of residents staring with menacing looks and the owner approached me again.

‘Don’t worry I am about to call the fire brigade out in the hope that they can do something’ I quickly said to forestall any comments from the owner.

‘About time’ was her only response.

I felt like suggesting she tried climbing the tree, but there was no way it could be climbed, no ladder would be long enough and the fire brigade could never get a turntable ladder close enough. I hoped they might have some miraculous idea for rescuing the cat and they arrived within ten minutes of my call and I watched as six firemen trooped over to me. They were all pointing up in the tree with amazement and shaking their heads, which did not look promising and were led by their station officer in his white helmet.

     ‘Well; before you say anything young man, there is no way I am sending any of my men up there.’ said the officer rather aggressively.

     ‘It has been up there overnight and it is obviously not going to make its own way down’. I was just hoping you might have some ideas as the natives are getting restless’ I said to the officer.

     ‘Hell, I have never seen a cat up that high before. It must be sixty foot or more,’ he went on.  ‘We would never get a ladder high enough.’

     ‘I know what you mean,’ I glumly answered.

     ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know if we are going to be able to help you on this occasion my friend,’ said the officer circling the tree and obviously thinking hard.

      I was beginning to worry as a large crowd had gathered on hearing and seeing the fire brigade. They were obviously expecting a rescue and if we packed up and tried to leave I wasn’t sure what would happen. I explained this to the officer.

     ‘In that case we had better have a word with the owner and do something drastic,’ he said more positively.

     He then proceeded to explain to the owner and me his idea. 

     ‘My plan is a bit drastic and could result in injuring the cat. I want that understood, but I cannot think of any other way. I plan to send some men up to the roof of the flats with a grappling hook on a long length of rope. We will try and throw the hook into the tree top and then shake the cat down. As a safety measure we’ll have a tarpaulin below to catch it if it falls. It is the only suggestion I have and you’ll have to take it or leave it,’ he explained.

      We placed the onus of the decision onto the owner, who reluctantly agreed to the plan and then the fire brigade went into action. I wasn’t at all confident, but we had to try something, otherwise the cat would probably fall anyway and injure itself. Two firemen disappeared into the flats and a few minutes later appeared on the roof. The other firemen spread a large tarpaulin at the base of the tree. The tree was some thirty feet from the roof and it took five attempts to get the grappling hook firmly lodged. Once this was done the rest of us, plus a few onlookers, grabbed hold of the tarpaulin and raised it from the ground in readiness.

      The officer gave the order to start shaking the tree and we held our breath. I could hardly bear to look. Nothing really happened to begin with as the tree was quite large and it took a lot of strength to move it. An extra fireman was sent to the roof to help them and with the extra manpower on the rope managed to get the top of the tree to shake slightly which resulted in Jeremy slipping several feet down the trunk. There was a sharp intake of breath from all of us, but Jeremy held on for grim life So far, so good. The firemen then gave the top of the tree a much harder tug with far more enthusiasm, which caught Jeremy off guard with a disastrous result.

      He completely lost his grip, but instead of falling straight down as  our contingency plan had been put in place for he launched himself out and away from the tree into free fall. It was times like this that everything always appears to progress in slow motion. With his legs and claws fully extended and tail swirling, acting as a rudder, he plunged earthwards. Unfortunately he also caught all of us off guard. When he launched himself we were standing in the wrong place with the tarpaulin.  In the panic we all made a valiant effort to get the tarpaulin beneath him, but only succeeded in tripping each other up landing in a heap on the grass. There was a sickening thud as Jeremy hit the earth some four feet away. 

      I scrambled up and pounced on him in case he was able to run off, but having fallen some sixty feet he was in no condition to go anywhere. He was lying there winded and disorientated and his lack of movement was making me feel sick. After a quick check I was overjoyed to see he was breathing and moving his head to look at me. Blood was trickling from his nostrils but miraculously he appeared to have no obvious broken bones. I knew there could be internal injuries, so I put him gently in a cushioned basket and said I would rush him to a veterinary hospital assuring everybody that I thought he would be fine and they were all relieved.  It always amazed me how cats could survive such falls as I had seen it happen on many occasions. When cats fall they are similar to humans in free fall with their four legs out-stretched. They use their legs and tail to keep themselves upright, to help slow themselves down and, to a certain extent, actually guide themselves in a certain direction. By doing this they normally hit the ground on all fours, which helps lessen the impact.

      Following the vets examination it was found that no broken bones had been suffered, but he had split the roof of his mouth and had broken several teeth, a common injury when falling from a height due to the impact of his head hitting the ground. Jeremy was also severely shocked, but following treatment and two days’ rest he was fit to go home. The owner promised to keep him in for a week or so to recover.

     I thought this would be the last time I met Jeremy, but a week or so later we had another report of a cat up a tree at the same location. Surely this could not be Jeremy again and in the same tree. I drove to the estate with a sinking feeling and as I walked round the corner of the apartment block, there was the tree and there was Jeremy the tabby cat almost in the same position. I could not believe it as he had obviously not learned from his first experience or had a very short memory. I advised the owner that it might proof fatal to try and rescue him in the same way as before, even if I could get the fire brigade to attend again, which I doubted. I advised leaving the cat for a while again while I looked into other alternatives, but meanwhile someone got in touch with the Press and they lapped up the story. Jeremy then became quite a celebrity all over the country with pictures of him stranded at the top of the tree. The press loved it even more when a window cleaner used to scaling heights, having seen an initial article in the newspaper, volunteered to climb the tree. The Press attended in large numbers to watch him climb the tree with the aid of a safety harness to rescue Jeremy for the second time and last time as to my knowledge he never ventured near the tree again.

Read more stories like this in John's book:

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