He’d been gone 12 days — days on the island that had dropped inches of snow and frightfully cold temperatures.
Otto, a three-year-old black cat, had gone missing from his Eastsound home while his humans were off-island in early February. It wasn’t the first time.
Late last summer, Otto wandered off and it was three weeks before he found his way home, none the worse the wear, apparently unaware of his humans’ desperate pleas for news of his whereabouts. But the weather was warmer then.
This time was different. Each day he was gone and the temperatures dipped, Helen and Paul Huber posted on social media asking folks to watch out for their wandering black cat and hoping he’d found a safe, warm space to survive the winter weather.
The afternoon of Feb. 22, Paul Huber happened to be checking the culverts along Bromley Drive for sediment and debris, when he heard a faint meow. Startled, he thought the sound came from behind and half expected to see his missing Otto. He heard it again and realized it was coming from inside the narrow steel corrugated drainage pipe. Deep inside. Huber called out his name. “Otto, is that you?” The answer, a weak “meow.”
Huber immediately called his wife, Helen. Paul’s flashlight only illuminated about six to 10 feet inside the pipe. He could see nothing. Another weak meow. He knew they had to act quickly.
While Paul called Orcas Island Fire and Rescue, Helen got down on the wet ground in front of the culvert and offered encouragement to the cat she hoped was theirs while continuing to poke around the dark tunnel with whatever sticks she could find.
Michel Vis with OIFR answered the Hubers’ distress call. Vis assessed the situation and asked Paul if he had any PVC tubing. Paul did and produced two 12-foot pieces. Once Vis duct-taped them together he added a rakish-like branch to the end.
“Like a 27-foot drill,” Paul observed.
Vis then asked Paul to fill a bucket with warm soapy water. The plan was to slowly pour the warm soapy water into the pipe in an attempt to loosen the blockage and provide a slippery path to release. Vis, who holds a reputation for many successful cat rescues on Orcas, looked the anxious cat owners in the eyes.
”There is a chance he could drown,” he said.
“He’ll die for sure if we don’t get him out of there,” cried Helen.
Paul started pouring. A small trickle of water, less than a cup, drained out the lower end of the pipe. More PVC-branch drilling. “Otto?” Paul called. Silence. He refilled the five-gallon bucket with more warm, soapy water and again poured, ever so slowly.
Suddenly, an explosion of mud-filled soapy water, branches and sticks gushed forth from the steel pipe and, with it, one very sudsy black cat.
“The release was so powerful,” Helen recalled. “It was like the swoosh of childbirth.”
The Hubers wrapped the shivering Otto, who was covered in soap suds and unable to stand, in warm blankets and took him home. A subsequent trip to the vet revealed the culvert-trapped cat had lost a few pounds and harbored an infection.
“Still, for having endured what he did for as long as he did, we’re pretty lucky he’s doing as well as he is,” Helen offered, with both Hubers expressing deep gratitude to OIFR for sending the perfect responder: Vis.
Five days after his dramatic rescue, Paul has placed grates over the pipe’s openings and Otto appears to be doing quite well. Helen said he’s eating, his legs appear stronger and much of his energy has returned.
In fact, Paul added, Otto had recently returned from his first walk off the property since the rescue. Where did he go?
Paul was surprised.
“To the place he just left. Otto returned to the culvert,” he said.