I

DON'T THINK MY CAT HAS BEEN

secretly playing the stock market, but, just about the time the market crashed, so did Sam. Right off the ledge of my fourth-floor balcony.

After a frantic 1 1/2-hour search, I found Sam cowering under a car. A quick trip to Friendship Animal Hospital determined that Sam had suffered only a slight head injury. But I was intrigued by what the veterinarians at the hospital called "high-rise syndrome," a modern phenomenon in which animals -- usually cats -- fall or leap from distances that would kill most humans.

Dr. Wayne Whitney is a New York City veterinarian who did a study of falling cats in 1984. He told me about Sabrina, who fell 32 stories (almost 400 feet) and suffered only chest injuries and a chipped tooth. Then there were two cats who fell together -- I call them Romeo and Juliet -- and 129 others that the Manhattan Animal Medical Center treated over a five-month period. ("Just make sure," said Whitney, "that people don't think I was throwing them out the window.") Ninety percent of the treated cats, falling from two to 32 stories, survived. The other 10 percent were apparently already working on their ninth life.

According to one theory that came out of the study, Sam could have minimized his risk by falling from a slightly greater distance. As cats fall, their limbs are rigidly extended, creating the possibility of leg fractures. But after falling five stories, they reach a maximum speed -- known, believe it or not, as terminal velocity -- and usually position their legs in a more relaxed, horizontal position, much like a flying squirrel. This enables the cat to more evenly distribute the impact across its underbelly.

So Sam got lucky this time. But I'm monitoring the balcony door and making sure the screens are secure. And, just to be on the safe side, I'm recommending that Sam get into tax-free municipal bonds.