German Firefighters Burdened by Animal Rescues

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"Most cats eventually dare to climb down by the time they start getting hungry," Darmstädter explains. In fact, she says, often it's enough just to put out food near the tree. Pet owners who are unwilling to wait and call the fire department for help instead, Darmstädter suggests, should be the ones to foot the bill.

'Absolutely Heartless'

Explaining this position to worried animal lovers, though, can be a tricky business. The fire department in the city of Osnabrück learned that lesson after receiving five calls within the space of a few minutes concerning a cat stuck up a tree.

The fire department refused to deploy a truck, arguing that a housecat can easily spend as many as three days in a tree without suffering any ill effects. A local newspaper reported the story, after being contacted by a mother who wrote that her daughter, who had seen numerous pictures in children's books of firefighters rescuing cats, was devastated by the refusal.

"We were left looking absolutely heartless," says Jan Südmersen, head of the Osnabrück fire department. Now the city is establishing a volunteer animal rescue group, which will provide assistance to the fire department. This special unit can also respond in cases when parakeets or doves escape, or when, as occurred in the western German town of Windeck in December, a cow fleeing a butcher jumps into a swimming pool.

Sometimes, though, people call the emergency number 112 without a good reason. Osnabrück's fire department received one call about a hamster stuck in a drain, for example. Even a common tree frog found sitting in the corner of a basement turned into an emergency -- the caller didn't want to approach the amphibian too closely, because he thought it might be a poison dart frog.

It also turns out that in the case of Murphy, the cat who fell down a chimney in Cologne, the owner could have held off before calling the fire department. Having failed to extract the cat from the chimney after four hours of work, the firefighters left, planning to return the next day and begin cutting into the chimney directly.

But to the good fortune of all concerned -- Murphy, the owner and the fire department -- that same day a 70-year-old chimney sweep who worked in the neighborhood and had heard about the situation stopped by. The man climbed up the roof and reached fearlessly into the chimney. Ten minutes later, Murphy was free. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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