|Karen Stuart and Panda: Reunited, and it feels so good.|
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – If you've never loved a cat, you may not understand why Karen Stuart's heart is so full today.
Yesterday her pet feline not only rose from the dead, but he is home for dinner with the family, where he belongs.
“We thought the coyotes got him. Panda can't stand to miss a meal,” said Stuart yesterday in hushed tones, still crouched in a culvert, arms extended, waiting for her cat to realize the coast was finally clear of well-intentioned but noisy rescuers with their loud trucks and buzzing water pumps and scary nets and ferocious hooks.
Three weeks ago Panda, a 22-pound well-fed black-and-white house cat, failed to come home for dinner. Stuart knew immediately that her cat was in trouble.
After a week, she accepted the fact that Panda had met an untimely end. There was no way the cuddly homebody of a cat could have resisted the sound of dry cat food against the tin can it was stored in. After a week of futile food-shaking rituals into the night, Stuart had to let go of hope.
“The only thing that didn't make sense is that Panda has a brother, Moona, who had started acting strangely. Moona is one of those outdoor cats who rarely comes home – he's not a people cat,” said Stuart.
Yet Moona was suddenly hanging around, rubbing up against Stuart's husband's legs, and meowing as if he were trying to tell them something.
“Honest to god, the other night my husband actually looked at me and said, “This cat is driving me nuts. Is Timmy in the well or something?'” Stuart said.
If only Moona were more like Lassie, he would have led the Stuart's to the end of Drake Lane and stood next to the metal grate covering the underground drain pipe, barking frantically until someone paid attention.
Instead, Stuart's son Cam was the one who finally discovered Panda's whereabouts.
“He was coming home last night from a friend's house and as he walked by the drain he said her heard a faint meowing coming from the pipe,” said Stuart.
After Stuart and her husband investigated with a flashlight and confirmed that it was, in fact, Panda that was trapped in the subterranean prison, too full of water and muck to find an exit strategy, Stuart called the fire department.
“It was so heartwarming, the response I got from the town – all for my cat,” said Stuart.
While the rest of the town watched the Patriots come back from a disappointing start against the Miami Dolphins Monday night to win its first Prime Time game of the season, a crew from the Derry Fire Department responded to Panda's distress call, setting up hoses and pumping several feet of water from the pipe.
Stuart couldn't sleep, especially after the fire department reported that, despite the water level being lowered, there was still too much muck in the pipe and the cat was still stranded. They told her to call Public Works in the morning.
|Highway Director Alan Cote assists Stuart with a plank, |
providing Panda a path to civilization.
By 7:20 a.m. Derry Animal Control Officer Marlene Bishop and Highway Department Director Alan Cote were on the scene, along with a crew. At first Bishop tried to catch the cat with a net. Cote tried to guide it out with a hook while town employee Andy Holland lowered himself into the other end of the pipe, making loud noises to force the cat out the other side.
Eventually, Cote placed a long wooden plank into one end of the pipe while Holland blocked the other exit with chicken wire, Panda's bridge to civilization.
Cote used the hook to spread some canned cat food across the plank. Panda was interested, but driven deeper into the cavern by all the commotion.
Bishop knew they had done all they could do. She wisely gathered up her equipment. Someone unplugged the sputtering water pump. All the Public Works trucks left in a convoy, until it was only Stuart and the cat.
“Come on, Panda Bear,” she said gently, her arms outstretched as she craned to see the glow of Panda's eyes inside the watery cave.
“I'm not leaving him. He looks wobbly. I think, after three weeks, maybe he's disoriented. I'm not sure he'd find his way home from here,” she said, still crouched low to the ground and peering into the hole, a tin can of dry cat food at her feet.
Her patience paid off – after a couple of false starts, Panda timidly stepped onto the plank and out into the sunlight, meowing all the way. Stuart scooped up his emaciated body and hugged him close.
“It's like a miracle – his skin is all loose and he's awfully dirty, but he's alive,” Stuart said, heading up the street, both arms wrapped around the prodigal cat. “Come on, Panda. Let's get you something to eat.”