Bob Burns will be the first to tell you a cat is not his favorite animal.
Burns, who farms 70 acres of almonds near Stevinson, prefers the two dogs that patrol his ranch to discourage -- OK, to scare off -- trespassers.
Still, he hates to see any animal suffer.
While on his ranch Saturday morning, he heard his dogs barking at the base of a 30-foot utility pole. He heard a cat meowing from above. Burns looked up and saw the cat looking frightened, cold and quite possibly acrophobic.
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Generally, the animals come down when the threat -- the dogs, a coyote or whatever drove the cat up the pole -- goes away, said Ed Medina, field supervisor for Merced County Animal Control.
"In all the years I've been doing this, I've only had one experience where a cat was up on a pole and I did ask for help -- PG&E or the phone company," Medina said.
It wasn't a heartwarming experience.
"The cat jumped and it was fatal," Medina said.
In this case, Burns knew storms were headed our way, with temperatures expected to drop into the low 30s overnight. He figured the feline could use a bit of help getting back down to the ground.
"I knew that cat wasn't going to last long," Burns said. "To be honest, I don't like cats. My ex had two cats, and in order for us to stay together, I had to deal with them. This one looked like one of my ex's. My son and I started calling it Lilo because it looked like it could have been one of hers."
It wasn't. The cats went with her when the couple split up last year.
Anyway, he began calling agencies for help, and embarked on a series of frustrations as each agency referred him to another ... and another ... and another.
"I called every agency you could imagine," Burns said. "I've got an entire page of phone numbers people gave me."
The concept of smiling firefighters plucking a stressed kitty from a tree or pole and handing it over to a relieved owner is now pretty much relegated to reruns from old TV shows like "Leave It To Beaver" and "The Brady Bunch," Burns learned.
Equipped with a Merced County phone directory, Burns began by phoning the Merced County fire station in Stevinson.
"I knew I'd need a bucket (lift) or a ladder," he said. "They told me they didn't have them, and told me to call another station."
Burns said he got the same story from the next one.
"They told me they had no trucks with ladders," Burns said. "I asked, 'What do you do when you have multiple-story (building) fires?' He just laughed it off. I've seen ladders on the fire trucks."
A fire official, who declined to give his name, told me departments have to weigh the risk versus the reward.
Is it worth sending a firefighter up a power pole to rescue a cat, risking electrocution? The safety of the firefighter always takes precedence, he said.
"Imagine having to tell a child Daddy isn't coming back because he got killed for a cat?" the official said.
Next, Burns called Merced County's animal control, and got a voicemail. It was, after all, a weekend. The office was closed. A dispatcher told me the recording instructs callers what to do during an emergency, but also gives a specific description of what constitutes one. Call them out for something other than what fits the emergency criteria, and you could get cited for filing a false report.
Burns tried Stanislaus County Animal Services -- even though Stevinson would have been out of its jurisdiction -- and also got a recording.
He called the Merced County Sheriff's Department, too. Sheriff Mark Pazin said his officers aren't trained to climb trees or power poles.
"The Sheriff's Department is not equipped for that," he said.
A sheriff's dispatcher, however, gave Burns a weekend and emergency number for animal help, he said.
"It was a pager," he said. "I left my number. I never heard back from them."
He tried, unsuccessfully, to reach animal rescue groups listed in the directory and came up empty.
The Merced sheriff's dispatcher also had suggested he contact the Livingston police, since they handle some mutual aid calls in the Stevinson area. He said that department's dispatcher also told him to try the local utilities, since the cat was on their pole.
Calls to the Merced and Turlock irrigation districts told him the power line belongs to Pacific Gas & Electric. When he called that utility, Burns said was told to call animal control. Again.
He tried to get the media involved, calling local newspapers and Sacramento TV stations -- hoping, at least, that the negative exposure might spur an agency into action.
"A puppy gets stuck down a well, and it's big news," Burns said.
In the meantime, the cat remained up on the pole with no food and who knows how long since it had last eaten. The temperature was dropping. Darkness fell.
Sunday passed, and no one came to help. Tuesday morning, Burns went to the pole again. The cat was beside it, dead.
"You could tell by the way the cat was (resting) at the bottom of the pole that it probably froze, rigor mortis set in and it fell off," Burns said.
"It's the first time I've ever heard of a cat expiring on a pole," said Medina, the Merced County animal control field supervisor."
Still, Burns wonders what happened to the safety net for critters.
"Everybody is so concerned with animals," he said. "But where were all these people when this poor animal was stuck on the telephone pole?"