Dolly's Grate Escape
Warning: if you're not an animal lover, you may want to tune out. This is the story of Dolly's Grate Escape...
My boyfriend and I have two Ragdoll cats, our fur babies, Dolly and Romeo. The little one, Dolly, is the most sweetest cat I have ever known. She loves to be close to you, always cuddling, purring like a chainsaw, doting over older brother Romeo. She has even been known to charm the most adamant cat-hater. Born on 11/11/11 there is no denying that Dolly is one special soul.
One thing that she isn't though, is street smart. Having just learnt how to scale the backyard fence, Dolly has taken to exploring the neighbourhood little by little.
On Saturday night, after a chilled night in watching movies, my boyfriend and I were close to going to bed when we realised Dolly hadn't come back in. Not unusual for a cat to be out at night, but for a cat called Dolly, it was somewhat strange to be out so late. She is usually our little shadow, especially at bedtime. We looked for her in the usual places, in cupboards, her hiding spots in the backyard, under the neighbours house. No sign of Dolly. Not too worried at this stage, we did a more thorough search of the street, calling out her name, still no sign. After about an hour or so, we decided she’d obviously gone on an adventure and that she’d be back soon. Reluctantly we went to bed, leaving all the doors open for her. I had terrible dreams of her being taken or injured but after a restless couple of hours of half-sleep, there was still no Dolly on the bed when I woke. I looked out the window to see if she’d come back, only to see her brother, Romeo, pacing the roof, as though he too were searching for his sister. I woke Adoni, and we decided to do another search of the block for her. By about 4am and still no sign of Dolly, we were spent, and decided to try and get some sleep and if she hadn’t come back overnight we’d start the search again early in the morning.
I jolted awake at about 7am, after dreaming she’d returned, the feeling of relief was quickly replaced with the realisation that she was still missing. Adoni said he’d had the same dreams, that she’d returned three times. I tried not to panic, it was totally normal for cats to wander off for a night or two, sometimes even weeks, and return as if nothing had happened. I always had ‘outside’ cats growing up, who came and went as they pleased, so a night out was nothing unusual for them. If Romeo had gone overnight I wouldn’t be concerned, because although Ragdoll by name, he is certainly Tom Cat by nature. But Dolly is different, she is clumsy and sweet, even with a new sense of curiosity, she is never far from sight. It was completely out of character for her, and deep down I knew something was wrong.
Trying to quell a mild hysteria that was building inside me, I tried to focus on practical tasks, like printing ‘Missing’ posters and flyers of Dolly to distribute round the neighbourhood and gathering all the numbers to call of the shelters, pet rescue and vets when they opened first thing Monday morning. Adoni, always calm in a crisis, kept telling me it was going to be fine, that she’d come back, it was normal cat behaviour to go exploring. But I could tell he was concerned too.
Together we worked quickly, putting the posters up, asking neighbours if they’d seen her, doing the rounds of our neighbourhood calling out and listening for her. She’d only been gone overnight, but I kept telling myself that I’d rather be dramatic early than do nothing and for it to be too late. I’d seen enough crime shows to know that the first 24 hours are crucial in any missing persons case, and why would it be any different for a pet?
I don’t know how many times we walked the streets around our house, maybe 15 times, maybe more, calling out her name, poking through people’s yards, down drain, up trees. Everyone we asked was more than kind, sympathetic and hopeful, sharing stories of encouragement and offering to help. “My cat was missing a week before she returned home”, “Our cat was stuck in a neighbours shed for four days before anyone realised”, “She’s a cat, she’ll find her way home”. Everyone promised to keep an eye out for Dolly and we were encouraged by their stories to keep the search up.
One particularly disturbing story was of a cat who’d been in a fight, had hidden under a neighbours house in fright, and eventually clawed it’s way back to his owner’s house on the third day and promptly died not long after on the vet’s table from a hidden puncture to the lung by another cat’s claw. She told us this story to let us know that we were right to be concerned, that we were doing the right thing by wasting no time in searching for her.
Although frightening, her story struck a cord, and we were even more determined to find her. We decided to have a proper look under our house. Apparently, in situations like these, where a cat has suffered trauma from a fight or car accident, they will often find a quiet place to hide to recover, or sadly not recover, and can often be so frightened or injured that they won’t cry out to you. We weren’t taking any chances, so unscrewing the timber panelling at the front of the house, Adoni awkwardly slid through the tiny gap into the dark, cobwebby, rat-infested space and crawled his way Shawkshank-style, all the way under our house and the neighbours. No sign of Dolly.
By around 4pm, after another several circles of the nearby streets, we both returned home, feeling helpless and panicked. I could see the worry clear on Adoni’s face now, and this terrified me more than anything else. If he was worried, then it had to be serious. It also, selfishly, provided some comfort to me to know that I wasn’t stupid for worrying, that I wasn’t the only one that was scared to think what had happened to her, that we were in it together. He kept saying “She should be home by now, she should be home”, and my mind was going crazy with horror scenarios about what had happened to her. Mostly of someone stealing her or her being injured and scared.
By dusk, and yet another circle of the block, peering in the same spaces for what felt like the millionth time, my mild hysteria had at this stage brewed into outright terror. We started checking the most unlikely places; in the dishwasher, the small cupboard above the fridge cavity, inside the fridge, our sock drawers. We even drove back to our old house, where she’d only been a few months old before we moved, to see if she’d gone back there.
I went through fits of panic and then numb hopelessness, and then bursts of hope. Every time I saw a cat my heart would skip a beat, every time I heard a bell, every time I returned home just hoping she’d be there, wondering what all the fuss was about. I wished so hard, like nothing I’d ever wished for before, for her to be okay. The house felt so empty and I tried as hard as I could to push thoughts of life-without-Dolly out of my mind. We still had hope, someone may have found her and dropped her into a shelter or the council had picked her up. Then we both started praying that someone had stolen her and they’d call us for the reward money. I willed my phone for that call. And then later, just hoping that if someone had taken her, that they were a nice cat-loving thief, who would give her a good life or a new family to love her. The pain of not ever knowing somewhat okay, as long as she was safe.
This was the hardest part. The not knowing. Not knowing if she was hurt or scared. It was particularly hard on Adoni, feeling helpless to do anything, to keep those he loved safe from harm. I kept picturing her sweet little face, her cross-eyes, the white blaze on her nose, trembling, cold and alone, wondering what was happening to her and why her parents hadn’t come to rescue her yet.
By that evening I realised that we’d had little sleep, and hadn’t eaten anything since the previous night, so we forced some food down to try and regain some energy. I also took to social media to try and spread the word of Dolly’s disappearance, hoping that friends would share the ‘Missing’ poster with people around our area, every little thing we could do added precious hope. I was overwhelmed and humbled by the immediate outpouring of support and encouragement. Facebook and Instagram were awash with friends and complete strangers sharing Dolly’s story, sharing their own stories of catscapades, rallying for help and offering prays and positive vibes for her safe return. Texts and calls came in offering to help with the search party. It was touching and kept our spirits going to push through the tiredness and not give up.
By 11pm that night, 24 hours after she’d disappeared, we were past exhaustion. The thought of doing another circle of the block and still not finding her was becoming overwhelmingly hard. I felt such a dark pain in my heart at not having her in my arms. Not seeing her lying at the top of the stairs, legs spread wide in her trademark Ragdollness. I just wanted to get to the end of this story and I prayed for a happy ending. I started irrationally negotiating with myself… “If I had a choice between having Dolly back and losing a finger, have my finger”… That type of thing.
I curled up on the couch, not even able to cry anymore, numb with grief, staring at the fence, willing a white ball of fluff to jump back over and into my arms. Adoni was pacing up and down, looking tired but determined not to sleep until she was home. He decided to do one last check of the neighbours back yard, under the house, nothing, nothing. In a last ditch effort before calling it a night he did a final search of the street. Something was pulling him towards the empty block down the street that followed the sewer line. We’d checked all of the sewer grates several times that day, calling into the tunnels and listening for her cry, but nothing.
My phone rang as I was lying on the couch, contemplating another sleepless night of worry. I don’t even remember what I felt when Adoni said he thought he might have heard a faint tinkle of a bell, but couldn't be sure, but it was enough for me to jump off the couch and hurl down the road with the toolbox. I got to the massive steel grate that Adoni had his ear to, and fell to my knees to listen. We called her name, again and again, straining our ears for any sound of her or her bell. And then it came. The clear, distinct cry of a cat in distress. And it was coming from down in the tunnels!!!! Finally, a signal telling us we were ‘warm’. We used to call her ‘Silent Bob’ because she was so timid, it took 6 months for us to know if she even had a voice. When she finally let out her first sound, it was more a chocked ‘miw’ than a proper ‘meow’, but this call from the tunnel was a definite ‘HELP ME’.
This is when I lost my shit.
We both looked at each other for a split second, probably in disbelief, and then Adoni jumped into action! Grabbing the shifter he set about unbolting the heavy grate. I was so excited and in a state of shock, I could barely keep the torch straight for him. I kept calling out to her (hysterically), “We’re coming Dolly, it’s going to be okay”, but by this stage the cries had stopped and I worried that we’d imagined it, or that it was another cat, but we had nothing to lose, we had to find out.
At one stage, one of the bolts got stuck, but with a bit of manoeuvring, Adoni had managed to get them all free. What felt like an eternity later, we’d slid the grate aside and peered into the deep dark sewer system. It was clearly too high to jump down so we ran back to the house for the ladder and more torches. Adoni went down first and ran off down one of the tunnels. The sewer split into two tunnels, so we had four options. The cries had stopped so we had no idea which direction they had come from, or even if they had been real at all. I couldn’t wait at the top, so torch in hand I tore down the opposite tunnel to Adoni.
Thankfully there wasn’t time to think about what else might be lurking in the tunnels at night and my hysteria was overriding any fear I had of dark confined spaces. All I could hear was the sound of my own breath, the desperation in my voice and the echo of our footsteps up the tunnel. I hate to think of what I looked like, a mad woman probably, dishevelled hair, crazy eyes. For a split second I thought, well at least I’d scare the rats or junkies down here. The whole thing felt surreal, like a movie… The Bone Collector, Tomb Raider, Batman, something like that.
I’d been running for what felt like half a kilometre when I heard a faint ‘miw’. I ran faster, shining the torch down every hole, crevice, frantically waiting to see her. Yelling out to Adoni "I think I hear her", hearing his footsteps running up the tunnel behind me.
And then, there she was. Wedged right back into the corner of a little ledge, looking tiny and wide eyed. It was Dolly. The moment I saw her little white blaze on her nose, I knew it was okay. A flood of relief and shock, I checked her over and over again, deciding if this was real, that it was really her. I took her into my arms and held her close. She normally wriggles when you pick her up, but this time she was dead still, just clinging to my arm, heart beating fast. As I ran back toward Adoni I was checking her for any signs of injury. Her tiny little paws, empty stomach, she was shaken, but breathing normally, no broken bones, no punctured lung.
Adoni had reached us and we just held her while I cried like a maniac, saying over and over again, “I can’t believe it’s over, it’s over, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, we have her, we have her”.
We took her back to the house and she immediately flopped on the floor into a million rollie pollies, as if nothing had happened. Romeo ran up to her, sniffed, then went back to his ball game. All was how it was meant to be. Our story had a Hollywood happy ending.
And now, writing this, Dolly is curled up next to me, gently purring in my arms as she sleeps, blissfully unaware of the heartache she’d put us through. And I am so grateful.
Safe to say, Dolly is now grounded for life. But if this experience has taught us anything, it is to never, ever, ever give up!
The freakiest part of this story… the movies we watched just before Dolly disappeared. The first one was called Seven Psychopaths (great movie, very original and funny), about people who steal pets for the reward. The second was Taken 2, also about kidnapping! Shut. The. Front. Door.
Thank you to the people of Thornbury, our kind neighbours for offering your support and concern. We feel blessed to live in such a kind-hearted neighbourhood. Yesterday, we put up posters saying we’d found Dolly and giving our thanks, and received many messages of genuine relief that she was home safe.
Thank you also to our friends, family and complete strangers, some from opposite sides of the globe, who shared Dolly’s story! Your encouragement, offers of support and strong positive thoughts for her safe return were amazing! I can’t even thank you enough, we’re both very touched and humbled. We’ve given Dolly all of your hugs and kisses.