ASHEVILLE - For 10 days last August, Cara Parker tried nearly everything to find her family’s beloved, if mischievous, 1-year-old mackerel tabby, Finnegan.
She knocked on neighbors’ doors. She called area vet clinics and churches. She even spoke to a local animal psychic, twice, who envisioned Finnegan walking about within a mile of the Parkers’ West Asheville house.
Finnegan, it turned out, was nearby, but he certainly wasn’t walking. The Parkers discovered him perched 30 feet up their neighbor’s tree. Ordinary ladders didn’t stretch that high, so Parker logged onto the popular Facebook group Asheville Cat Weirdos to seek advice. She heard a consistent response: Call Spence Cocanour.
The image of firefighters scaling ladders to scoop scared kittens from trees is outdated. Across North Carolina, a network of civilians performs the task, and Asheville’s top cat rescuer has some unique training.
For 24 years, Cocanour served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to become vice commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing. In the military he honed climbing and rappelling skills he now deploys to help cat owners across Western North Carolina.
“It's taken on a life of its own,” he said.
More saves than the fire department
Cocanour, 49, completed his first save in late 2019, when Brother Wolf, a local animal shelter, solicited the public for help saving a stranded green-eye cat named Heathcliff.
After some prodding from his wife Amy, Cocanour put on his old military camouflage uniform and made the rescue. Since then, Cocanour estimates he’s saved more than 100 other area cats. For context, the Asheville Fire Department has responded to 38 animal-related calls during a similar time period, according to department spokesperson Kelley Klope.
Cocanour uses spiked shoes to grip onto the bark, and a flip line keeps him strapped to the trunk at all times. When he encounters branches, he uses a second line to securely ascend higher. He estimates his tallest climb was 80 feet, and Amy, who accompanies her husband on some rescues, doesn’t like to watch.
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On each climb, Cocanour carries treats, a rattle, a looped snare pole and an animal control net. Establishing eye contract with the cat, he said, is key; if spooked, already frightened cats may scamper even higher.
He often speaks to the cats as he approaches, trying to calm their nerves with questions like “Can I pet you?” and, “OK Willa, are you ready to get in the net?”
Word of mouth drives his cat-saving reputation. Anita Ray, who lives in Haywood County, learned about Cocanour from her firefighter cousin. She was impressed with how quickly he maneuvered up the tree to return her cat, Blossom.
"I can't give him enough praises," Ray said. While Cocanour doesn’t charge for rescues, Ray was able to get him to accept gas money for his trip.
Cocanour, who lives with Amy in North Asheville, holds a number of part-time jobs: cycling coach, tour guide, military consulting and coffee roaster, but daring cat rescues have become a formal hobby. In 2020, he created an LLC, Asheville Tree-Top Cat Rescue, and posts GoPro videos of his rescues on the company’s Facebook page.
These posts garner hundreds of likes plus appreciative comments from those who have their cats back.
A statewide network of rescuers
Cocanour isn’t the only person in North Carolina, or even in Asheville, who specializes in saving cats from tress.
The website Rescue My Cat lists the go-to treetop cat savers in 10 North Carolina communities. Around Asheville, arborists Dan Stouch and Kyle Young are also mentioned alongside Cocanour.
These men are providing a service the local fire department tries not to fill.
“We generally don't encourage people to call 911 for a cat in a tree since the cat usually will come down on its own if left alone for a while,” Klope said. “However, if the situation seems like an emergency, then we will send a crew to use a ladder to try to assist the cat down. As you can imagine this can scare a cat and it may jump, so that is why we prefer to wait and see if the cat will come down on its own.”
Cat lovers around town know the AFD isn’t the place to call when your feline goes up a tree. Many note that while fire departments use more static ladders, climbers have the nimbleness needed to track cats from limb to limb.
"I know the fire department wouldn't come," Cara Parker said. But when she contacted Cocanour at 10 p.m. one night last summer, he was at her house by 7 a.m. the next morning to save Finnegan.
After 10 days in the tree, Finnegan had lost half his body weight, Parker said. Their family veterinarian later told her he wouldn't have survived in the elements much longer.
Cocanour enjoys the physicality of each rescue and relishes the sense of service his peculiar hobby provides.
"The cat usually wants to get down, and the owner really wants it back," he said. "Just being able to return it is just such a satisfying feeling."
Brian Gordon is a statewide reporter with the USA Today Network in North Carolina. Feel free to email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @skyoutbriout
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: When Asheville cats are stuck in trees, Spence Cocanour heeds the call