Fred was one of the neighborhood feral kittens that I’d adopted and domesticated into my household; a story told fully in Trapping and Releasing in Rockport, Texas. He was born in 2014, and even though he quickly adjusted to life around humans, he still preferred to be outdoors most of the time. Because of all the raccoons and occasional foxes that frequented our neighborhood, I tried to corral all the cats indoors overnight. However, Fred was one who did not like to spend the night inside. In fact, it was usually a mistake to think I would make it through the night without being awakened by his yowling to be let outdoors, usually around 3 or 4 a.m.
In the summer of 2017, one evening Fred was being his usual restless self and I knew he would not settle in for the night, so I let him outside and went upstairs to bed. The next morning as I’m feeding the multitudes, both inside and out, Fred did not show up for breakfast with the other cats, which was quite unusual. Normally, they were all waiting for me at their usual spot on the front porch. I fed the others and went searching and calling for him in the front and back yards. No Fred. This had happened occasionally, but he had always shown up within a few hours, so I didn’t think much about it.
At noon I went out again looking for him and calling out his name. No sign of Fred. He also didn’t show up for dinner that night, and now I was getting concerned. He definitely had never missed two meals before. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I drove around the neighborhood a bit that night, seeing if I could spot him anywhere—being a mostly white cat, he would stand out like a sore thumb against most any background. But he was also street smart, having spent most of his days outdoors, so heaven knows what he was up to or where he was hiding!
My heart really sank when he was missing again for breakfast the next day; something was seriously wrong now. I called and called for him and would listen for his distinctive “yowl.” I drove in wider circles throughout the town, looking for him, and posted him as “missing” on the site where his microchip was registered. I called friends who knew what Fred looked like to let them know he was missing and to please keep an eye out. I put up a notice at the church across the street from where I lived, at my vet, and at the local humane society.
On about the third day of him being gone, right after feeding the other cats in the morning, I walked back into the house with a very heavy and worried heart…then all of a sudden, I hear something. What was that?! I hear a very faint, muffled cry coming from what sounded like somewhere in the ceiling! I listen intently…there it goes again! “Fred? Fred, is that you honey?” And Fred answers with a “MEOW!” It’s so faint I can barely hear it, but hear it I do! But where on earth is that coming from??
Oh my God. I realize: he’s trapped in the walls of my house.
Now, before you think I am crazy, let me explain something. At the time I lived in an historic home that was 100+ years old. The walls were, in fact, hollow, with no insulation whatsoever. Back before air conditioning existed, houses were built this way so that hot air could travel up through the narrow passageway between the interior walls and the exterior siding and escape out the attic vents, thus helping to cool off the house. After these older homes were sealed shut and air conditioning was installed, it was an enormously expensive proposition to get those walls insulated after the fact—I know, because I was the one who actually installed the A/C in this house for the first time, and collected the insulation bids. Let’s just say that after the sticker shock of the A/C installation, it was another expenditure I wasn’t prepared to take on.
So. Those walls were still hollow, years later. Not only was it possible for a cat to climb through them, but raccoons had done so in previous years and made a condo out of my attic spaces. Year after year, I battled keeping those varmints out of my attic. The only thing I could envision was that Fred must have chased a rat or a squirrel up one of these tiny crawl spaces and couldn’t find his way out. All I knew was, I was hearing his desperate MEOW from the inside of my house, high in the ceiling spaces and in between the walls.
I heard him again later that evening, during the evening feeding. I could tell he was moving around up there because the sound would move, so at least I knew he was still alive and probably unhurt. I would call out his name and he’d respond, which of course made me crazy. My panic started to rise as I considered my options of how I was going to rescue him.
In the renovation of my home, I had stripped the walls and ceilings down to their original shiplap construction: 100-year-old long-grain pine boards that ran horizontally along the walls and ceilings. These boards were 1 in. thick and some were 10 to 12 ft long, very rough looking with huge gaps between the boards (think about a log cabin with no mortar between the logs, and rough, imprecise joinings where the logs met, and that will give you some idea what my walls and ceilings looked like). What I originally thought was a brilliant idea for “restoring this home to its original charm” turned out to be the biggest maintenance nightmare and thus one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. But I digress.
For the purposes of rescuing my cat, however, those rough, exposed planks gave me an idea.
I became convinced I was hearing Fred in the ceiling of the room I used as my office, right around the fireplace. That night when my boyfriend Jeff came over, I asked him to cut a small section of the planking out of the ceiling, in case Fred was trapped up there, which would allow him to escape.
“What?! You want me to do what? You can’t be serious,” Jeff said.
“I’m dead serious. I don’t know what else to do. I know you can hear him too. He’s up there and can’t get out. We have to help him. Just make some straight cuts across that board there, cut about a 1-ft section out.”
Back and forth we went, me convincing him I was really serious about him taking a circular saw to this ceiling in a room that he knew I’d just finished repainting and decorating. “How could I possibly ruin the looks of this ceiling?” I argued. “Look how rough it already is. It’s not like we’re cutting into smooth sheetrock. It will be easy to cut a piece of plank and fit it back in there and caulk around it, later on.” He went and got a stepstool and his saw, marked out the plank, took one last look down at me and asked, “You’re sure about this?” and when I said “Yes,” he started up his saw.
Of course, like any time you are using a saw over your head, sawdust and dirt showered down right back into his face as that circular saw started squealing its way into that nearly petrified 100-year-old wood and nails. He managed to section out a 1-ft piece of it and dropped it to the floor. Then he stuck his head up into the opening.
“What can you see?” I asked eagerly.
“Nothing. He’s not here. Of course, the saw probably scared the crap out of him so he may have run off. But there are these support joists everywhere, so I can’t see very far.”
Well, that was a big disappointment. But I continued to hear Fred, so I knew there was still hope. The next day I could hear him on the other side of the same fireplace, so I asked Jeff to try another hole in the ceiling on the other side. Once again, he obliged me, but after this hole was made, the same result: we just couldn’t see Fred anywhere. A third hole was cut into the living room ceiling a few days later. By now Jeff was mightily irritated with me and incredulous that I was continuing on with what he considered to be a fiasco. He disavowed himself of the entire project—he was done with this.
I remembered from when my A/C had been installed, the workers describing the tiny crawlspaces they saw up in my attic, and how some just weren’t accessible from the main part of the attic. Apparently, it had made it difficult to install ductwork and vents in my house, and was one of the reasons for the poor coverage of vents throughout the rooms. I was worried that Fred was somehow trapped in one of those areas and couldn’t find a way out.
As a long shot, I called our volunteer fire department and explained my situation. Was there any chance they would come out and help me rescue a trapped cat, especially if I wasn’t quite sure where he was? He might be somewhere high up in my attic crawl space? The operator said “No, unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing we dispatch the fire department for, I’m sorry.”
Well, I figured as much, so I hung up the phone, disappointed. But I hadn’t really expected they would come out anyway. So imagine my surprise when not 10 minutes later, a huge fire truck pulls up at my house and the whole crew disembarks! I guess they listen to all the calls that come in, and since they didn’t have a real emergency to attend to, they decided what the heck, they’ll go help this lady look for her cat!
They took out their huge two-story ladder and set it up to reach to the apex of my house where the attic vent was. They took the screen off the attic vent, went inside there, and looked down every single wall hollow, looking for Fred. I was so impressed with this crew—the professionalism, protocols, and safety precautions that they insisted on following, even with such a simple request as looking for a cat. They were in full gear, followed the commands of their chief, and even had some guys in training. But no Fred. I told the crew that I very much appreciated their willingness to come and try to help me, but I guess there was nothing more to be done that day.
Now what was I going to do? I could still hear Fred wailing up there, but apparently every time we tried to rescue him, he got afraid and hid from the rescuers. I did some research on the Internet and found out that infrared thermometers could remotely detect the presence of animals (by way of hot spots) in hard-to-reach areas and could possibly pinpoint where Fred was that way. I read that home inspectors and electrical companies often have these devices, so I got on the phone. I called a few local home inspectors who told me that “Yes, I have one of those, but I won’t come out for a cat.” and “Yes, I have one of those, and it will cost you my home inspection fee of $450.” I also called a local electrical company whom I had hired many times in the past and was also told “Yes, we do have an infrared thermometer, but we are fully booked today. But we won’t book an appointment to look for a cat.”
Wow, to be told twice in the same day that professionals in the city of Rockport have such a low opinion of cats was a slap in the face. If I’m paying you a certain amount of money for a service call, $75 or $150, or whatever it is, why do you care what it is I’m looking for? Would it make a difference if it were a dog? A horse? That reasoning just ate away at my sense of right and wrong. As that was festering in my mind, the injustice of that, and as I was toying with ordering my own infrared thermometer from Amazon and suffering through the 2-day delivery, amazingly, the same receptionist at the electrical company called me back a few hours later and said, “Listen, one of our electricians has a 30-minute window between jobs. He can stop by your house with the infrared and see if he can detect anything. But that’s all the time he’s got, 30 minutes. OK?”
I said, “I’ll take it!” The guy was at my door a few minutes later and he immediately heard Fred in the walls. He was one of the few, other than Jeff and myself, who heard Fred “meow” back to me when I called his name. As he started pointing the thermometer up toward the sound, I could definitely see the glow of where Fred must be hovering up in the corner of the living room—there was a distinct hot spot indicated. Oh, I was so happy! It was my first indication of where he actually was located. I thanked the guy profusely. Of course, he saw all the other holes that were already cut in my ceiling. He said if I cut another one close to where we’ve narrowed down the location, that this time I should put a can of food there to make sure he comes back to that spot. I thought this was a great idea and said I would be sure to do that.
So now I had to get another hole cut. Since Jeff had bowed out of this operation, I called my old boyfriend Steve, who I remained on good terms with and was always willing to help me out. He, also, couldn’t quite believe what I wanted him to do. But being a huge cat lover himself, he was definitely more understanding than Jeff. So, another hole was cut in the living room ceiling, this time in the corner where the electrician pinpointed Fred’s location. Of course, by the time the noise of the hole-cutting was finished, Fred was long gone.
I did put a can of food up there, and the next day it was empty, so someone (I was hoping it was Fred) had found it and devoured it. I just couldn’t imagine why, if it had been Fred, he hadn’t just jumped down through the hole and back into the living room. So my sinking feeling was that it was someone or something else.
At this point my stress level had pretty much maxed itself out. Not only that, but I was also running out of “favors” I could call in from people who could help me with this thing. My current boyfriend had said “no more.” I’d already asked my ex-boyfriend and figured I couldn’t go there again. I’d called in the fire department. I’d called home inspectors. I’d called a local electrical company. I was running out of ideas and options. I finally remembered another friend, a contractor named Roger, who I could pay to come over for an hour or so and cut a few more holes where I was hearing Fred.
On about Day 10, Roger came over and I asked him to cut a hole in the ceiling of my covered porch, and another hole in the porch floor itself, because that’s where I fed the outdoor cats, and I was hearing Fred recently during mealtimes. Roger was dumbfounded to see all the holes in my ceilings and said he’d heard from Steve what I’d been doing. I said “Yeah, I guess I’ll tear this house down to the studs if that’s what it takes to rescue my cat, but I’m not going to let him die in the walls if I can prevent it. As long as I can still hear him meowing, I’m going to keep going.” He looked at me a long time and said, “Well, Serena would do the same thing.” (Serena was his wife.) So Roger cut those two holes for me, wished me luck, and went on his way.
A few mornings later, I was out on that porch feeding the outdoor kitties. I must have started to lose some hope, because I no longer called for Fred anymore during mealtimes. As I was bending over to put the food dishes down, I was startled by some motion to my right. All of a sudden, THERE WAS FRED, miraculously jumping up through the porch floor hole that Roger had cut! I swear, I almost had a heart attack, it was so unexpected! I immediately scooped him up into my arms and whisked him into the house and hugged him so tightly and spun around in circles. I couldn’t believe that after almost 2 weeks and scaring me half to death, he suddenly reappeared. “OhmyGod ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod it’s you, it’s really you!” I immediately brought him over to a food bowl and he ate and drank water like a half-starved creature.
I could tell he had lost weight. That very afternoon I took him to the vet to get him checked over and told them the story of how long he’d been missing. They couldn’t quite believe the circumstances of his disappearance or that he could survive that long, being trapped like that in the heat of a Texas summer. They weighed him and he’d lost more than 2 pounds during his whole ordeal, which is quite a lot for a cat. But otherwise, they said, he didn’t seem any the worse for wear.
It took me almost a week before I was comfortable letting Fred outside again. I never wanted to lose him like that again! I paid contractors once again to block all access underneath the house to the interior walls and any crawlspaces. To this day I’d give anything to hear Fred’s side of the story—to know where he’d gone, how he got trapped, how he survived, where (or if) he found water, and how he found his way back to me.
[Epilogue: In all, six holes were cut in my house in an attempt to free Fred. This happened in June of 2017. Until I could get a contractor to my house to repair the holes, I taped heavy-duty plastic over them. However, just a few months later, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport in August 2017, a story I tell here. After that, I had much bigger worries than a few holes in my ceilings. These repairs got rolled into the whopper of repair jobs that Harvey dealt to all of us for a full year thereafter.]