Saturday, February 21, 2009

Little C tumbles into the rabbit hole

A search for Little C is conducted in the crawl space.

I got one of the worst frights of my life last night.

The evening had started off peacefully. I’d fallen asleep on the couch watching Law & Order. When I awoke, I decided to check on Little C in the master bathroom, where she had been napping.

I pushed the door open, but the room was still. Deathly quiet. Little C wasn’t on her bed. I ripped apart the pillows and blankets, calling out for her in vain while I searched the small space.

Moments later, a sickening reality crept in. There was only one plausible explanation. Little C had gone exploring, and had gotten herself stuck. She had to be lodged somewhere in the house’s innards.

It wasn’t a stretch for me to reach this conclusion. Many times I had seen and heard of rescues that began like this. Cats trapped in tub enclosures, walls, crawl spaces. Their curious natures draw them to the tiny dark tunnels. Sometimes they can’t make their way back into the living space. Or if the house is under construction, they might be accidentally bricked in by workers.

If they are fortunate and someone responds to their cries, they are pulled out skinny and dehydrated, sometimes weeks later. I always encourage people who have lost their cats to search outbuildings recently locked up for the winter, such as garages and sheds, as well as new construction sites.

And now it had happened to Little C.

As a responsible pet guardian, I should have known better. Dangers lurk in my house. It’s relatively new -- cosmetically unfinished -- with many nooks and crannies. Round holes where speakers are supposed to fit. Square holes for control panel hook-ups. Wires protrude from the cut-outs, ready to be put into service on the day when I finally decide. Scattered throughout the house are rectangular holes on the floor that connect to the heating system. Metal grates were intended to sit in them. But all of the grates have been removed.

Cats with territorial tendencies mark ground with their urine. A common spot for cats everywhere to frequent is in the heating grates. They treat them like those third-world toilets in the floor.

In my cat house, the vents have been closed off with flat pieces of rubber to protect them. But the only way to get a tight seal against the wood floor was to remove the metal grates. When it gets so cold that the heat has to be on, I push the rubber panels back a bit to let warm air pump through the house.

I was certain Little C had squeezed herself through the small hole the heat was coming through, perhaps looking for extra warmth as cats tend to do. She’s a small cat. But still I had my doubts. She has gained a bit of weight lately. It would have been a tight squeeze.

I lay down on the floor, put my face to the opening and started calling, “Little C! Little C!”

Silence. Little C is normally a chatty cat. If she was conscious, she likely would have meowed back. I stuck my hand into the metal duct as far as it would fit, groping around for her warm, furry body. My fingers touched a body, but it wasn’t Little C. Wrapping around something familiar, I pulled the object out. It was Doll Favorite!

Now panic started surging through my body. I was electrified with dread. My mind had put the puzzle together. Little C must have dropped Doll Favorite into the duct, and gone after her in the hopes of retrieving her best toy. She had tumbled into the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, and now she couldn’t claw her way back out. I pushed my arm in deeper and found a foam ball, and a hard-shelled plastic one I had filled with catnip for her.

I tore out of the room and headed for the basement. That’s where I could access the crawl space. I climbed a pallet rack and pried off the makeshift wood trap door, hoisting myself into the dark, dank space that runs under the house. The ducts that snake under the foundation carry warm or cool air to each room. I calculated where Little C would have fallen into the hole. It was the furthest point from me. I would have to crawl along like a worm until I made it to the opposite end.

I am intensely claustrophobic. To me, the crawl space wasn’t just a dirty, cobwebbed inconvenience. It felt like being buried alive. But after three seconds of hesitation, my maternal instincts kicked in and buried my fears.

If Little C was in there, I wanted to be in there with her.

I crawled along, feeling the plastic-wrapped insulation with my hands until I detected a heavy spot. That had to be her body, I thought. I called and called out to her, putting my face against the plastic, but I couldn’t hear her respond. I couldn’t risk slicing through the plastic with a utility knife -- she would be badly cut if I missed.

It took some time to pry the ducts apart. Luckily Little C had some help from her Hero. When the tube was finally opened, the source of the extra weight was revealed. A bunch of Little C’s toys fell out, including another doll from her trio. But Little C was nowhere to be found.

I decided to patrol the house and see if she had made her way back through another opening into the living area. I was searching the main floor when it hit me.

It wasn’t Little C who had fallen into the rabbit hole -- it was me.

My brief catnap had snatched my memory of the present momentarily. I had completely forgotten that I had put Little C in the holding cage, just like I had recommended to readers in an earlier post (Cats love the velvet paw treatment, February 9, 2009.) After I placed her in there, I dozed off as the sun went down. When I woke up it was dark. Her black coat blended in with the plastic carrier’s dark color. She’s usually vocal about getting out after a few minutes, but decided to stay silent last night.

When I got to the cage and peered in, there she was, right where I had left her. My embarrassment over my over-reaction was overwhelmed by another feeling. Pure relief to find her safe.

And the jolt of pet parent panic wasn’t a waste. It was a wake-up call. From now on I’m going to do better at cat-proofing my house. And myself.

Little C is notorious for her playful, mischievous personality.

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