Gear: Carrier

Whenever I mention the use of a carrier for the rescue of a cat in a tree, unless I specify otherwise, I am referring to a hard carrier, not a soft one. While soft carriers have some advantages over hard carriers – for example, they are generally lighter, less bulky, quieter, and safer to hold by the handle – I find that hard carriers are far more suitable and advantageous for rescue in a tree. I expect many people will challenge that statement, so allow me defend it.

First, consider the front door. On soft carriers, the door typically opens down and outward in front of the opening but can usually be folded underneath the carrier. The door on hard carriers opens to the side, and some, such as the one I use, can be opened to either side at will. When I use a carrier for a rescue, I hold the carrier in front of the cat and allow him to voluntarily walk inside. If I were to lay the front door of a soft carrier down in front of the cat where it must cover the limb on which he is walking, the cat could step on an unsupported portion of the door and either lose his footing or pull back and refuse to go any farther. If, instead, I fold the front door under the carrier, then the cat can safely walk inside, but then I must move the carrier off the limb in order to pull the door back into the closed position. The risk is that the movement of the carrier can potentially unnerve the cat while, at the same time, it takes longer to close the door to prevent an escape. Making matters worse is the length of time it takes to zip all three sides of the door closed. Even with two of the three edges zipped closed, the flexible door is still vulnerable to escape by a determined cat. While some of the zipper can be closed with one hand, it typically takes two hands, at least in some sections, to fully close the zipper. It is much simpler, safer, and faster to swing and latch the rigid door of a hard carrier closed with one hand.

The second advantage of a hard carrier is its rigidity which gives you the ability to extend your reach for those hard-to-reach cats. I have often found myself in a position where a cooperative cat is just beyond my lateral reach, and I am unable to move any closer to him or pull him to me. In those cases, I can simply reach the carrier as far as possible, and the cat can step inside. I am also frequently in situations where I cannot install a rope above the cat and must, instead, work my way up to him. Once I get close to him, my head is below his level, but I do not want to reach above him to set another rope to pull myself higher since doing so may frighten him. While I am close enough to touch him, I am not close enough to comfortably grab him, or, even if I can grab him, I would prefer a gentler alternative. What I can do is hold a carrier up above my head and let the cat walk inside. The rigidity of the hard carrier makes that possible and safe.

The third advantage of a hard carrier is that it is much easier to clean. Most cats do not appear to mind the scent of another cat in the carrier, but some are repelled by it. Some cats will mildly react to the scent by refusing to go inside the carrier, and a few will react more severely by becoming hostile toward me. I have learned the hard way the importance of keeping myself and my gear free of the scent of any other cat at every rescue, so I always wash the carrier after each use. It’s much more difficult to fully remove the scent from the fabric and mesh of a soft carrier, and I would not feel fully confident that I had done so effectively.

It's only fair to address the disadvantages of a hard carrier as well. After all, it is the least utilized rescue method for a reason. Most tree climbers prefer to climb with as little weight and bulk attached to them as possible, so hanging a bulky carrier to the harness is clearly undesirable. To be honest, I don’t like it either, but it’s truly not as cumbersome as one might expect. I climb with it for almost every rescue and have very little trouble with it, but one should expect an adjustment period to be necessary before adapting to it and feeling comfortable with it. Even if you choose not to climb with it attached to the harness, it can still be retrieved from the ground by a rope in many cases, and you may want to lower the cat in the carrier to the ground in the same manner.

The most serious disadvantage of a hard carrier lies in its construction which is very fragile and insecure when carrying it by the top handle. The weight of the cat inside pulls the bottom half of the carrier away from the top half which also pulls away from the handle. All the weight of the cat and carrier is being held by two very small, plastic, poorly-supported protrusions at the ends of the handle. When the cat moves to one end of the carrier, even more force is focused on one end of the handle. When the handle fails, it does so suddenly and without warning. The connections between the bottom and top halves of the carrier are also under constant stress. Some connection designs are more secure than others, but even if there are steel bolts connecting them, the plastic around them can break, especially as it becomes more brittle with age and exposure to sunlight. Some latching mechanisms are more prone to accidental release, and if a single latch near the door fails, the weight of the cat can distort the structure enough that the door can fall out of its hinges.

For the general public and common use of the carrier, the potential for disaster is real, and cats in transport are very commonly lost due to a hard carrier structural failure. The solution is simple, but most pet owners do not think about it until it's too late. The easiest solution is simply to carry the carrier with your arms under the bottom. Since the top handle is too convenient and natural to use, it would be better to cut it off. There is a risk, however, in holding the carrier this way. It makes it more difficult to open doors, and there is a temptation to try to open the door while continuing to hold the carrier which increases your risk of dropping it. It's safer to set the carrier down, open the door, and then pick up the carrier again. Yes, that's trouble, but it's much less trouble than searching for a lost cat.

A better solution is to provide a handle on top which supports the carrier from the bottom. That is what I do, not only for the carriers I bring into the tree, but also for the carriers I use to transport my own cats. It's very easy to do, and all you need is a small rope or, for the knot-phobic, a cam-buckle lashing strap. Both are pictured below. The entire functionality of the carrier remains intact, and the top and bottom halves of the carrier can still be completely separated without removing the rope or strap. A minimum of twelve feet of rope or strap were needed for the carriers pictured, but other carriers may need more or less.

The rope or strap is attached only to the upper half of the carrier. It enters one of the upper ventilation holes at the front end of the carrier and exits a lower ventilation hole beneath it. From there it runs down the side, underneath the bottom across to the other side, up that side where it enters a lower ventilation hole, and then exits an upper ventilation hole above it. From there, it forms a handle for that same side and re-enters the top half of the carrier on the same side through an upper ventilation hole at the back end of the carrier. It exits a lower ventilation hole beneath it, runs down the side, across the bottom, and up the opposite side where it enters a lower ventilation hole on the back end. From there it exits through an upper ventilation hole, forms the handle for that side of the carrier and connects with the rope or strap where it began. You will need to add or take out slack in places and make sure you have enough slack at the top to form symmetrical handles that can meet in the center at whatever height you want.

You may need to experiment with the precise locations of the rope or strap to make sure the carrier is reasonably balanced when held by the handle. Ideally, the rope or strap should pass over the latches that connect the lower and upper halves of the carrier together since that can help prevent an accidental release.

To connect the ends of the rope together, tie a double fisherman's bend or other suitable, secure knot of your choice. Cut off the excess rope and melt the ends to prevent fraying. If you use a strap, simply insert the end of the strap in the cam buckle, cut off the excess strap, and melt the end to prevent fraying. In the picture above, you may notice that I intentionally turned the cam buckle and strap around so the buckle and excess strap would not protrude.

When you want to disassemble the carrier, you can pull the bottom strap at the front toward the front until it clears the carrier, and then you can pull the bottom strap at the back end toward the back until it clears the carrier. The two carrier halves can then be separated in the usual manner.

For use in a tree, I girth-hitch a basic short chainsaw strap with a ring to the rope handle so I can attach it to my harness. Since I am concerned about the possibility of dropping the carrier, I attach a longer, elastic chainsaw lanyard to it as well that stays attached to my harness.

There is one other minor disadvantage to a hard carrier, and that is the smooth, slick floor. I can't expect a cat to walk into a carrier, especially when it is slanted, if he doesn't have secure footing. For this reason, I cut a piece of solid toolbox liner or thick shelf liner to fit the floor of the carrier, and I secure it with either double-sided tape or loops of one-sided tape. This gives the cat something to grab securely with his claws. The floor liner is easily cleaned, and I replace the tape after every use.

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