It all started on a Thursday morning at about 10 o'clock, when Henkie entered our life. Henkie is a Dutch name for a Portuguese cat, in English it is pronounced like Hanky. We have more cats; sometimes they die, sometimes a new one shows up, so you need a bit of creativity with the naming. Our other cats have to face life with the names Zut (the French equivalent though less strong for saying "oh shit!"), Slabber (a slabber is a baby lap), Sloef (a sloef is a slipper), Knieps (a knieps is a-sort-of dialect for an eye blink) and Risca (risca means stripe). Previous cats were named Pieke, Tinus and Doerak. Now Henk is a normal Dutch name, and Henkie is a small one, but how did our new cat, which is 100% Portuguese, get this Dutch name?
OK, back to that Thursday morning, 10 o'clock. I was still in bed reading Time, whereas Liesbeth my wife was making tea in the kitchen. Suddenly I heard a loud miaow in the front garden. I could not trace the sound. It was not quite familiar, not one of our cats. My wife must have heard it as well because she went to have a look and later she asked me to come down and see it while she was giving it something to eat. Yet another Portuguese stray cat but still not quite underfed, a bit dirty and skinny, apparently "on the road". It had one front leg broken, but later the vet said it was lame and that all cats can be perfectly happy with three legs. It was not shy; it came from a family and ran away or was dumped, perhaps because of that leg. Who knows? Talking about Portuguese and animals... (but I must add that I know many Portuguese who take good care of their animals!).
I went up to put on my clothes and when I came back downstairs Liesbeth said that it was gone. Suddenly. We looked everywhere, nothing, so we assumed that it hit the road again on it's way to wherever. All's well that ends well. But was it? No, not yet...
That Thursday at 10.30 pm Liesbeth went to bed while I was reading a paper that I should review. Suddenly we both heard a miaow, quite loud and it came from within the house. We discovered that the sound came from the bathrooms (we have three, one downstairs and two upstairs) and, to be precise, from the ventilation ducts. I remembered that at the back of the house, in a shed, we have a small hole at the floor level almost next to the side wall of the house. This is the air input for the ventilation of the bathrooms. But we always put many tools like shovels in front of it because of our small cats. We assumed there was one very close to the opening and miaowing, the ventilation tubes carrying the sound. So we went to see in the shed. Nothing. But suddenly again a miaow, coming from the air input. We said "oh shit" instead of "zut"; how did that cat get into that tube and, more important, how do we get it out again. Cats can come into funny places like high trees and, normally, they manage to come back again without help. But a narrow tube of about 9 cm and having a broken front leg??? So we started calling "pussy, pussy, come, come", but all that came back were more miaows and they sounded scared. Liesbeth said that having a live cat miaowing in a tube was unbearable and she started to panic. What to do? I opened the ventilation ducts in all bathrooms and we called into all of them. Miaows but no cat came out, so it could be stuck somewhere. In such cases, if all else fails, you phone the fire-brigade. They have a lot of experience with such weird cases, you think.
So I phoned the Bombeiros Voluntarios de Faro. I said sorry to call at this hour (it was already 11.30 pm), but we have a small problem at hand and maybe you can help. After explaining the problem they said OK, we'll be at your place in about 15 minutes. And indeed, about 11.45 there was a huge red truck with 5 (five) firemen and no tools for cases like this one. They hovered around the shed and the bathrooms, looked into the holes with flashlights (what I had done already in the meantime), poked with my electric wire into the tubes to find many bends (what I also had done before) and concluded that there WAS a problem. However, as the chief concluded, cats go everywhere and normally come out again, on their own. Hmmm, normally... I thanked them, we shook hands, and were left with a miaowing cat somewhere in a tube in a wall or floor. Of course Liesbeth could not sleep. I managed to sleep a couple of hours, but before I fell asleep I was thinking about what to to if the little bugger did NOT come out of that tube again. What do you do with a dead pussy in your ventilation pipes? How would that smell? Not funny, something should be done. The only idea I had was about a flexible wire that electricians use to pull wires, or the type of flexible tube that plumbers use. Stick it in and push, push...
In the morning, at 8.30, I looked into the yellow pages and phoned a canalizador (plumber), Algar-Rod in Conceicao, which is close to our place. I came to speak with Henk Looy, speaking English but he detected my tongue and deduced I was also Dutch. He said "What, a cat in a tube somewhere in a wall or floor? Alive and you want it out alive? Hmmm, this is quite weird, never seen such a problem." At about 9.30 he came with his mate. They began to stick hoses into all tubes, discovering the many bends. Still many miaows, but where exactly was the little bugger? He phoned another colleague who came with more tubes. More sticking and reasoning followed. Was it in a T-junction in the first floor between the two bathrooms? No. In the vertical tube going up to the second floor? No. Finally Henk's mate found that when he stuck a tube far enough into the air input in the shed, the cat started to miaow louder and he (thought) that he was feeling a reaction like the cat pushing back. So the cat was localised, but how to get it out? Pour water and flush it out? It would drown. What else? Opening the side wall and get into the tube and try to pull it out? Hmmm, breaking a hole into a wall without knowing the exact position? Maybe better to wait until the afternoon, perhaps it comes out without help... So we concluded to wait and see, eventually to open the wall and look for the tube and the cat. I went to the University to work a bit and Henk with his mates went to visit some sewers.
At 15.00 I phoned home to learn that only scared miaows had come out of the tubes, so I phoned Henk again and at 16.00 the real work began. The tube was more or less horizontal. After sticking in a hose far enough to hear a louder miaowing we confirmed it was still at the same spot and we knew the distance. At the side of the house we marked the approximate position and Henk and his mate started to make a hole. First a small one, then a bigger one (aha, there's the tube), still bigger in order to open the tube and stick an arm into it. Finally, to make it short, at 18.30 Henk said "I feel a tail" and at 18.31 it was freed and we all were very happy and relieved. The cat behaved quite normal in view of the fact that it was trapped in a dark pipe for many many hours, that it heard all the noises of people calling into the tubes and sticking hoses into them, then the tube hitting it's bum and finally the hammering of the hole in the wall at a 30 cm distance, which is deafening. Liesbeth went straight to the vet who said to come back in a couple of days to give it some vaccinations; it was a she and the leg was lame instead of broken. Physically the cat was quite OK, she only needed a bath with anti-flea shampoo and some sleep to calm down.
We thanked Henk and his mate, and I paid the bill which was very acceptable, I think because Henk liked the problem and especially the good luck that we had. After the weekend the hole was closed again. So this is why the cat became Henkie. All's well that ends well. Of course the cat was adopted by us; who would put a cat with such a background into the asylum? BUT: what if Henkie had moved beyond that spot in the straight tube, beyond that bend, until one meter or so away from the house's side wall? This was just another lesson. Be prepared. If you have cats and an open ventilation hole, or even if you don't have cats but only one or more holes: put a grating, you NEVER know! Of course, you can rely on Algar-Rod now also known as the Algarve's Tubed-Cat Rescue Team, but things might work out differently.
With special thanks to the Bombeiros Voluntarios de Faro, Henk and his mate from Algar-Rod and, last but not least, to Henkie who found a new home after going through some minor difficulties.
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Last update: September 1998; HdB