Meet Tank, a cat that decided to explore the joists of a house, risking entombment

Correction: An earlier version of this column gave an inncorrect first name for Joan Weber. This version has been corrected.


Bruce and Joan Weber pose for a portrait in their house in Silver Spring on Nov. 30. Earlier in November, their cat, named Tank, climbed into the exposed floor of a bathroom being renovated in the Silver Spring house. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist December 3, 2013

In the end, curiosity did not kill the cat. It sure did a good job of frightening the humans, though.

Tank is a 4-year-old mackerel tabby who lives in Silver Spring with his brother, Dozer, and their owners, Bruce and Joan Weber. The Webers recently embarked on the renovation of two upstairs bathrooms in their 1958 house.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The tile has already been laid on the floor and walls of one bathroom. In the other, the floor is still open, the parallel wooden joists exposed. Last month, the door to this bathroom was left open, and Tank — inspired perhaps by some primal urge — decided to go exploring.

Bruce was downstairs when he heard a commotion he thought was the two cats fighting. Instead, it was the sound of an irritated Tank. The inquisitive feline had found his way into the cavity between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second floor.

“I could hear a cat, and once in a while a meow,” said Bruce, 72, a retired physicist with the federal government who teaches physics at Montgomery College.


Bruce and Joan Weber's cat, Tank, relaxes on a chair at their house in Silver Spring. Earlier in November, Tank climbed into the exposed floor of a bathroom being renovated in the Silver Spring house. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Very softly,” said Joan, 68, a retired printing exec who works in commercial real estate. “He may not have been able to see his way out.”

And thus began the Ordeal of Tank.

I don’t know the Webers, but they live a few blocks away from me. I followed Tank’s plight on our neighborhood message group. The cat had apparently disappeared into the further reaches of the house. But where? The Webers put smelly food near where Tank had disappeared, hoping it would lure him out. No dice.

Did anyone in the neighborhood have a stethoscope they could borrow? Or a plumber’s camera?

A doctor lent a stethoscope, but holding it to the ceiling and listening carefully didn’t provide any information. The Webers went to the hardware store and bought a camera on a flexible tube. They poked holes in the kitchen ceiling and threaded in the camera. They never got a good look at Tank, but they did eventually see two shiny eyes reflecting at them in the light — proof of life, as it were.

The Webers called the Montgomery County fire department’s non-emergency number, and a little while later six burly firefighters showed up with a thermal-imaging camera and a nasty wall-opening tool called a Halligan. It turned out that the thermal camera would only pick up a heat signature if Tank was resting right against a surface. They couldn’t see him, so they left.

Occasional cat noises wafted from a vent in the master bedroom.

The Webers’ fear was that Tank had gained access to the great, unseen spaces of the house, a hidden highway where ducts and wires and pipes run — and where a cat could conceivably get lost and starve to death, entombed forever behind the drywall and the plaster.

It was shaping up to be like something from an Edgar Allan Poe story: The Telltale Meow. And all because they wanted new bathrooms.

In the end, talking with the contractor who was doing the renovations convinced Bruce and Joan that Tank couldn’t have gone too far. The vertical space in a house is hard to traverse. Bruce made about a dozen holes in the kitchen ceiling, which is under the bathroom floor. They jury-rigged a platform out of sawhorses, plywood and a ladder for Tank to jump onto, should he be so moved.

Eventually, after 36 hours, Tank figured it out. He padded toward one of the holes. Dozer started meowing in solidarity with his long-lost brother. Bruce acted quickly.

“Bruce grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him out,” Joan said.

Tank was back.

Did they, I asked, ever get irritated by Tank’s antics, which, after all, caused them no small amount of worry — and a bunch of holes in the ceiling?

“No,” said Joan. “He’s a cat.”

“They’re childlike,” Bruce said. “It would be like getting angry at an 18-month-old.”

I would never dare to criticize a cat, but Tank’s ad­ven­ture did make me wonder what, let’s say, unwise things area felines and canines have done. Has your pet aggravated you? E-mail details — with the subject line “Stupid Pet Trick” — to me at john.kelly@
washpost.com
.

Helping little humans

Please help me raise $400,000 for Children’s National, the area’s leading pediatric hospital. Your gift will go to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, the money that’s used to pay the bills of underinsured patients. To make a tax-deductible gift, visit childrensnational.­org/washingtonpost or send a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, Md. 20910. Our deadline is Jan. 10.

Bill and Joanne Conway, through their Bedford Falls Foundation, have generously offered to match all gifts to The Washington Post Campaign for Children’s National. All donations, up to a total of $150,000, made by Dec. 31 will be matched dollar for dollar.

Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.

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