How to Rescue a Kitten with a Shop Vac

A couple of weeks ago we were walking home in the dark through our neighborhood and heard a kitten crying off the path. Of course, we find the cries of kittens irresistible in this family, so we went to investigate. The cries were coming from a pipe under a rock just over a dry stream bed, but the pipe curved downward and we couldn’t see the source of the cries at all. We all went home and Brian put the children to bed and I went back with a cloth (Brian’s suggestion) to push into the hole so that the kitten could grab it and climb out, and some wet food to entice him. I put the cloth in the hole and waited, but of course nothing happened. As I sat and waited, several women stopped by and said they also had heard him, that he’d been in there several days, that they didn’t know how to get him out either. I was feeling rather helpless and called my friend Echo and asked her what we ought to do. She stopped by to have a look and we went together to ask the guards what we ought to do. One came and had a look and said there was nothing to be done, they didn’t know where the pipe led out, etc. As we were walking away from him, another guard came up and suggested that if we really thought the kitten was stuck in there we should call 119 (Chinese 911, apparently that’s what you get if you did a hole straight through the earth and come out on the other side–backwards land).  So I left the cloth and the food and agreed with Echo that I’d check again in the morning, and if I still heard him, she would call 119 for me.

The cavalry arrives.

The cavalry arrives.

The next morning first thing we went out and heard his plaintive cries, so Echo called 119, and maybe 10 minutes later a firetruck came up outside the main gate, sirens blaring, and 6 firefighters walked into our neighborhood. I showed them the pipe and they all looked and talked about it, had a property man see if he could figure out if the pipe came out anywhere, to no avail, and finally pulled out their Vibrascope camera, which enabled them to push it all the way through to where the kitten was, and we could see him on the screen. One of the firemen explained that the pipe went back, down, and back again, and that the kitten was back there, but too far away to reach. A man from the property company came up, too, and told me I shouldn’t have called them, that I should have asked the property company first and they would have called 119 if necessary, that the firemen had other things to do and they were leaving. So they left. It was a terribly hopeless feeling to think of leaving the kitten to a slow death by starvation when I had seen so clearly that he was there, and could still hear him.

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So the kids and I went home and I googled “how to get a kitten out of pipe” (one of the results of which was a pretty funny video of some firemen blowing kittens out of a pipe with a leaf blower). It seemed that the only possible option was trying to suck him out with a Shop-Vac, which I doubted they even had in China, but I wrote to my trusty friend Echo, who happens to work at a company that builds apartment complexes, and she found a Shop-Vac at her office and met me outside with it and an extension cord. I got it back to the kitten location and realized we were going to need a LOT more extension cords, not to mention somewhere to plug them into. A helpful-ish guard told me to ask at the property management office for one, and they gave me one, and then I went home and deposited the boys in front of a movie and collected what extension cords I could find at home and went back to the building nearest the kitten to find an apartment that would loan me their electricity. I knocked first on the first floor nearest apartment, but no one was there, then on the second floor nearest apartment, again no one, then on the first floor second nearest apartment, also no one, but finally had luck on the second floor, second nearest apartment. I carefully recited my most recently acquired Chinese phrase, “There’s a kitten stuck in a pipe out there, and I am going to use a vacuum cleaner to suck him out [that’s the recent phrase right there], may I please use your electricity?” Bless her, she didn’t even hesitate, just showed me to the window and helpfully moved the nightstand so I could plug the cords in. I said, “I’m sorry, it may be a while, I may need to go back home for more extension cords,” and she went and got a nice long one and added it to the line and dropped it out the window.

The only photo of pre-rescue, taken accidentally by Piper amusing herself with the camera while waiting for me to come back with extension cords.

The only photo of pre-rescue, taken accidentally by Piper amusing herself with the camera while waiting for me to come back with extension cords. The hole with the kitten in it is the dark spot above the end of the vacuum hose.


So I went back downstairs to where Piper was waiting, guarding the vacuum, and plugged everything in and found there was no electricity. Then became the tedious task of figuring out which of the cords were faulty, and thankfully, a guard finally decided to help in a mission he must have thought was completely crazy (I think I finally have an opportunity to use the word “quixotic,” but I’ll resist), and he helped me figure out which cords were bad while I ran to a nearby store and bought two of the longest ones I could find. Finally, music to my ears, the vacuum finally roared to life, and then came the task of wrapping mesh over the hose (so as not to actually suck the kitten INTO the vacuum), and then plastic bags and fabric around the nozzle to make it fit snugly into the opening of the pipe (probably twice as wide in diameter as the hose nozzle). Finally it was all set, and a crowd of grandmas and their grandchildren slowly gathered, and the “boy teacher” (from the kindergarten our children went to last year) stopped by to help me by switching the vacuum on and off as it went in and out over the next half hour. After about ten minutes of suction (I could tell when it was good suction when I could barely hold it), suddenly the kitten sounded very near, and I was simultaneously relieved that at least other people could hear that I was not after an imaginary cat, and also surprised at the fact that I wasn’t yet embarrassed by doing something so obviously crazy in front of so many people.


After that first burst of loud, near meows, there was no more progress for what must have been twenty minutes, just pulling the hose out and re-wrapping it, trying again, and becoming more and more resigned to the possibility that I would have to just give up and walk away. It was then I started to think about humiliating it would be to fail. I started to hear water glugging somewhere way back in the pipe and thought, Wow, he’s probably going to drown before he ever gets rescued, and I decided to give it one last go, as the boy teacher got up and left. With Piper to switch it on, I put the hose in for the last time and just lay next to it thinking about how to explain to Piper that it wasn’t going to work, and finally I thought it had been long enough and pulled the hose out, and there in the mouth of the pipe was a tiny, soaking wet kitten. It was just the most incredible feeling–I still can’t believe it actually happened, even though he’s curled up in my bed asleep right now. I remember thinking, Gosh I hope he doesn’t turn around and slip back down the pipe when I reach for him. But I pulled him out and everyone who had gathered to watch was so happy to see him. I wrapped him in the cloth that had been wrapped around the nozzle and handed him to Piper and after collecting all of the cords and packing up the vacuum, we took him for a brief hello to the lady who’d lent the electricity before taking him home for a warm bath and some food. I know it’s just a kitten, but it was such an incredible experience to have so much hopeless hope pinned on something and then to have it actually work out. It was like living a YouTube video that was never actually recorded. We won’t talk about how many cats that makes now. But it’s 14 rescued since coming to China! And not all of them live with us. I’ll leave it at that.

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