Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Apparently, firefighters (and 311) do NOT care about cats in trees

Despite having seen the old “cat stuck in a tree” bit in numerous films and TV shows over the years, I was completely stopped in my tracks when I heard a piercing meow coming from a roughly 30-foot-tall tree in a housing complex on Myrtle Avenue, where I was in the process of schlepping a disassembled bookcase to the M train. I would soon find myself even more paralyzed by the knowledge that there was not a single New York governmental employee who was willing to do anything to help.

It’s not as if the residents, themselves, didn’t care. Standing not far from the tree was a middle-aged lady holding a box of Meow Mix and shaking it to get the crying kitten’s attention. “The cat has been up there for over two days,” she told me. “We tried to get it, but the ladder wasn’t tall enough.”

As a crowd gathered around us, variously saying “here, kitty, kitty,” or taking cellphone pictures, I asked, “Has the city been called?”

“Would you believe,” Ms. Meow Mix said, “that there was a gas leak and the police and fire departments were here and they just ignored the cat?”

Unfortunately, I did believe her, but, realizing that I was wearing my Superman T-shirt, I felt that surely there was something I could do. Naturally, I called that great lifeline of New York City, 311. Reaching the automated directory system, which asked me what I was calling about, I said, “Cat stuck in a tree.” Soon I got an actual human being, who asked, “How exactly can a cat be stuck in a street?”

“Oh, no, I said it’s stuck in a tree.”

“Oh, that makes more sense. Is it sick?”

“I honestly don’t know...I don’t think so, it’s just extremely scared and about 30 or 40 feet off the ground. Apparently it’s been there a couple of days.”

“Yes, I understand. Let me see what I can find for you.”

After a few minutes of pleasant hold music, the operator came back on the line. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about cats stuck in trees. I don’t know what to say.” Looking down at my shirt, I responded, “Well, I don’t really have any experience with this, myself, but isn’t this usually something a fireman does? Or Superman? But obviously we aren’t going to get Superman here.”

“Oh, that’s funny. Well, let me put you through to the fire department, would that be okay?”

“Sure, I’d appreciate that.”

The phone rings. And rings. Finally, “Fire Department, what’s your emergency?”’

“Well, I’m not sure this qualifies as an emergency, but 311 transferred me to you. There’s a cat stuck in a tree on Myrtle Avenue and it’s been there a few days.”

The fireman laughs. “We don’t handle cats in trees.”

“Oh. Do you know who does?”

“I can look up Animal Control for you.”
“Cool, could you transfer me?”

“Here’s the number. 212-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” Click.

I dial the number. “We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. No further information is available for this number.”

Ms. Meow Mix calls over to me, “Who did they put you in touch with?”

“Nobody,” I say. “I’m getting passed from person to person and was just given a non-working number.”

“Typical.” She gives up and goes away. So does everyone else. A man comes with a ladder! Finally! We’re saved! But no, he just is there to casually hang a sign. The kitten continues to meow.

I dial 311 again. What am I calling about? “Animal control.”

“Hello, this is 311, how can I help you with animal control?”

“Could you just transfer me or give me a phone number? I was given a wrong number.”

“Well, what do you want them for?” she asks. 

“There’s a cat stuck in a tree,” I reply.

“We don’t handle cats stuck in trees.”

Record scratch. Um.....what? 

I try a companionable tack: “Well, yes, I understand you wouldn’t know what to do about a cat stuck in a tree, I just want the number of animal control.”

“Sorry, no. That’s not in our jurisdiction,” she says, firmly.

“Wait, what isn’t under your jurisdiction?”

“Cats stuck in trees.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that 311 was the clearinghouse for city agencies. I am asking for the number of a city agency. Is that not in your jurisdiction?”

“We are the number for city agencies. But we don’t handle cats in trees.”

“And you won’t connect me with animal control.”


“A city agency.” Silence.

“Is the cat sick? Is the cat yours?” Wait? Is she about to actually help me?

“No, the cat is not mine. I have no idea whether it’s sick, but it’s been up there two days so I assume it’s hungry.”

“I’m sorry, we can’t help you.”

“Can you tell me who can?”


“Even though this is the number that’s supposed to direct me to the right people.”


“I am going to go back to my office at the Post and see if someone has some idea of who handles animals stuck in city property. I’m sure we’ll work something out.”

So here I am, at my desk. A colleague has given me the number for a shelter (because, guess what, Animal Control does not appear to have any kind of public phone number that anyone can find.) The very helpful, caring person on the other end has promised to find out what to do about this. Which is a lot more than anyone at 311 has done. The cat is, as far as I know, still in a tree.

More to follow.