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Torpy at Large: Cat up a tree? Here’s the man for the job

Sometimes I’ll tease my firefighter brother by asking if he’s rescued any cats out of trees lately.

His stock reply: “No one’s ever found a cat skeleton in a tree.”

The implication is that cats will just figure out how to get down and you don’t need to waste the fire department’s time to fetch silly felines out of trees.

But, it turns out, there is a rather large population of cats that get treed and find themselves stuck, often 100 feet in the air, as their frantic owners pace about underneath.

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In a pinch, such owners are increasingly calling Normer Adams, a preternaturally cheerful 68-year-old former social worker who has carried his do-gooding into retirement. He’s become a treed-cat rescuer on a rampage.

For decades, as the head of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, Adams was at the forefront of the effort to save the state’s most fragile humans.

“I advocated for children without a voice, kids who were abused and neglected,” he said. He retired in 2013 and I interviewed him recently about the state bureaucracy that handles such kids. I asked what he was up to these days? And he told me.

Mr. Kitty, up 65 feet in a sweet gum tree, wasn’t too happy when approached by Normer Adams, who later discovered that the cat left a little deposit in his rescue bag. (Courtesy of Normer Adams)

In less than two years, Adams, himself a cat owner, has rescued 91 tabbies and toms, an average of one a week. He charges no money for his services and has set up a YouTube channel with videos of almost all his rescues, many of them culminating with a triumphant “Cat’s in the bag!” from atop a tree. Yes, he bags ‘em before heading down. They can get dangerous.

The rescues show a man possessing a disarmingly calm disposition and expert knowledge of tree climbing, dual attributes that bring a calming effect to tense situations — to the owners and especially to the geeked out cats hanging on in terror far above their comfort zones.

Cats are adept at climbing up trees, but not so at climbing down, unless they back down. Many, however, haven’t mastered that skill. “I’ve seen them try to come down face first,” said Adams, “and they just drop like a rock.”

He often wears a GoPro camera on his helmet for close-in, high-up drama as each situation unfolds. Other times, his wife, Pamela, shoots from the ground. Each video is a self-contained episode — a problem, a strategy that is laid out, action (and reaction) and, finally, a resolution.

Just in the past month, there has been:

Rescue #80, Niffin, the one-eyed cat in Holly Springs who spent three days in a sweet gum tree, some 45 feet up. Adams got the call at 5:17 a.m. and made the 60-mile drive as daylight approached.

Rescue #83, Alex, who spent two nights in a heavy rainstorm 100 feet up a pine tree. “Alex knew that this crazy human with opposing digits was coming up this monster pine tree to help him but he was not prepared to be stuffed head first in a dark black bag,” Adams wrote on his website, adding with great understatement, “he did not like it at all.”

Alex the cat found himself 100 feet up a pine tree for a couple days until a visit from Normer Adams. (Courtesy of Normer Adams)

Rescues #89 & #90, which Adams calls “Two-fur in a Pine Tree.” This was his first double rescue, 30 feet up a skinny tree, one that was too weak for Adams to climb. He ascended a neighboring pine, and then, owner Ed Spindler told me, “he had to go out on a limb 10 feet to coax one of them in. He’s fearless.”

Said Johanna Boyce, owner of Rescue #85, “He’s a cat whisperer.” Her 25-pound Bubbie was stranded near the top of a 150-foot-tall pecan tree, chased up there by dogs. Like most owners, Boyce called around unsuccessfully, including to the local fire department, before learning of Adams’ Cat Man Do Rescues.

Says Adams, “When you hold them by the scruff of the neck, some of those big ones get really heavy.”

Adams does not charge for his services because, he said, “Taking money changes everything.”

Instead, it’s for the inherent joy involved. “When you get them in the bag, you can hear the owners start crying,” he said.

When attempting a cat rescue, Normer Adams approaches with about 30 pounds of gear on his belt. (BILL TORPY / AJC)

More simply, he has grown to love climbing trees. It’s kind of like rock climbing, he says, but all you have to do is walk out in your front yard.

“Climbing trees is fun,” Adams said. “Being up in a tree for a reason is even better.”

Tom Rawlings, interim director of the Division of Family and Children Services, has known Adams for decades, saying he was a fixture in a grueling, often transient business.

“People could get burned out, but he could find joy in the work,” said Rawlings. “He’s gone from the quixotic work of saving children to the quixotic work of saving cats.”

Adams came to adult tree climbing in a somewhat odd fashion. (Could there be any other way?) His backyard in Fayetteville has a stand of 80-foot-tall bamboo, which got overrun by a huge flock of starlings. At a loss in figuring out ways to scare them off, Adams had a 65-foot tower built in an effort to get up there and frighten them away. He learned to climb and was hooked. The “sport” is a growing activity, albeit by older men.

Tom, Rescue #82, was not cooperative and tried to scamper higher up the tree. Normer Adams had to snag him before he went higher, making it difficult to stuff him in a bag. Many videos are made of blurred action, looking down from high-up in a tree.  (Credit: Video still from Normer Adams)

During a rescue, Adams arrives on the scene, aims for a sturdy branch above the cats (he doesn’t want them climbing higher than him) and uses a tall slingshot to launch a beanbag with attached rope to the preferred spot. He then tugs the climbing rope over the branch and ties one end to the bottom of the tree. Then he scurries up with the help of knee and foot ascenders, contraptions that basically allow you to “walk” up a hanging rope in mid-air.

Adams hooked me up and I found it easy to climb perhaps 25 feet to the first large branch in a river oak outside his home. Then I looked down ... and felt like one of his rescue projects.

He tried to coax me to climb perhaps 5 feet higher, “stand” on a branch and enjoy the view. I preferred to hang onto the branch — even though I was perfectly safe with the rope. He scurried up and re-instructed me on how to click the ascenders on my leg so I could rappel down.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to stuff me into a bag.

The author, Bill Torpy, up a tree. (Pamela Badgerow Adams)

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