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Near Catastrophe

A middle-aged police officer decided not to wait for high-tech equipment, like a safe ladder, and scrambled up in his loafers, followed by a firefighter. “Nothing here,” they exclaimed. It was pretty embarrassing.

By Kathleen Naday Updated Apr.8

I knew my Chinese New Year holiday wasn’t going to be exactly restful – despite the fact that most everything is shut, I had to write a proposal for a research project, which apparently I should have started working on the previous November. Oh well.  

So even though I vowed to go nowhere (I didn’t) or watch movies or TV shows (I did), I thought I’d have more than enough time to finish before the deadline. That is, before the cat incident. I’ve been rescuing various animals for a few years – it is an unfortunate fact of life in China that some people tend to discard animals as easily as trash – quite literally in some cases. Before Christmas, I came home to find a month-old puppy in a box outside my door. A couple of weeks later, on a cold windy morning, I was handed another tiny puppy by the security guards – she had been put in an Adidas bag and thrown out with the trash. If I didn’t take her, they said, they would put her in the garbage bin.  

Mostly, it’s because of lack of education in what it takes to look after a pet. It’s also because there’s no official animal rescue network or shelters you can take abandoned pets to. Of course, there are many pet lovers in China, and many groups of rescuers, both Chinese and foreign, but if you choose to rescue an abandoned stray, you are responsible for its medical care, boarding and adoption.  

Back to the cat. I also look after some feral cats that live in my residential compound–putting food and water out for them, and arranging for sterilization and vaccination. Some are very friendly, and come running for food when I go outside. But one day, I couldn’t find Cracker, a small calico girl. She had lately become quite adventurous, and I suspected she had crossed the lane to the construction site next door.  

The development includes some very upscale apartment blocks – completely swathed in black glass, they wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars – on the Empire side. Each apartment has a large balcony, and when I heard Cracker crying plaintively, I realized she was trapped on a second-floor balcony and was too frightened to jump down, even though there was a handy tree nearby. I called her, but she remained where she was. I decided to give her 24 hours, but on Day Two, I went to ask the security guards if I could try to coax her down from the inside. They had heard the crying, and were sympathetic.  

They called the chief security officer, Mr. Fang. He allowed me, under supervision, to go into the construction site. We got the keys to the buildings, but once inside, we found there was no way up through the building. The internal doors had been nailed shut, or were locked, and they didn’t have all the keys. The workers were all away for an extended New Year break, as is the custom in China, and were not expected back for at least two or three weeks. I threw some chicken up there and left.  

On Day Three, a Chinese friend came over, and I asked her to help me. We went back to the construction site, with Mr. Fang, and tried to coax her down. My friend called the Beijing city hotline. Call the police or fire service, they suggested. We did. The fire service operator refused. We are only for human emergencies, the operator said. But the police agreed to inspect the situation. Another call to the fire service was successful, and suddenly, we had an excess of emergency services. My friend suggested it was because she told them it was a foreigner’s cat in trouble. I didn’t dare mention she was an outside cat.  

An SUV of police and a large fire truck arrived. Their occupants were in a jovial mood.“We got another cat down from a balcony here once,” the firefighters said. We went to inspect the balcony. There was a rickety bamboo ladder there, with the bottom rung broken. A middle-aged police officer decided not to wait for high-tech equipment, like a safe ladder, and scrambled up in his loafers, followed by a firefighter. “Nothing here,” they exclaimed. It was pretty embarrassing. They left.  

Yet later on, there she was, still prowling the balcony and crying. On Day Four, Mr. Fang decided to go up himself. We realized we couldn’t call the fire service again. He saw uncovered vents where she hid from her would-be rescuers. I gave him food and water for her. On Day Five, my Russian neighbors, also alarmed by her crying, came to help. We went back again, but Cracker stubbornly remained in the Death Star. I suggested putting a special cat trap up there, and Mr. Fang agreed.  

It took another day before hunger drove Cracker into the trap. On the morning of Day Six, Mr. Fang called. He had her. A vet visit later, a clean bill of health, and Cracker is now in my apartment. She’s living under the sofa, but that’s another story.