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Does the hamster need rescuing? That'll be £600, please

Horses in pools, cats up trees... animals cause so many 999 calls. But that could be about to change. Matt Chorley says budget cuts will be bad news for pets in distress

Pet owners, farmers and wildlife lovers face being charged for the rescue of their beloved animals, as fire and rescue services have their budgets slashed.

The taxpayer is footing a £3.5m annual bill for 999 calls to get cats down from trees, horses out of swimming pools and hamsters from under washing machines, an IoS investigation reveals.

On average, crews trained to tackle major fires and perform life-saving rescues receive two calls a day to help a cat. Other animals in distress range from chinchillas, hamsters and squirrels to an iguana, a school of dolphins and a whale. Fire chiefs insist such rescues can provide useful training for when a human finds themselves in difficulty. In addition, deterring people from dialling 999 could lead to their getting into danger if they attempt a rescue themselves.

Nevertheless the bizarre catalogue of emergency call-outs makes interesting reading, disclosed as fire chiefs come to terms with the effects of major funding cuts unveiled by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary. During the past three years, fire and rescue services were called to more than 11,800 animal rescues, at an average cost of £600 each. The 39 fire and rescue authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who responded to an IoS survey catalogued details of 2,390 rescued cats, 1,568 dogs, 1,591 birds and 1,112 horses.

Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service spent £240,518, Lancashire £382,800, Cambridgeshire £140,014 and Surrey £278,332. Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, meanwhile, spends an estimated £167,000 a year on animal rescues, one of the highest totals in the country despite employing an animal rescue specialist who works in partnership with the RSPCA to reduce the impact on frontline resources.

Spending cuts ordered by the Government will see the authority lose £1m next year, but officials have warned against deterring people from calling the emergency services. Bob Ratcliffe, an assistance chief officer at Hampshire, said: "Animals in distress pose a potentially serious risk to the public, members of other agencies and to firefighters. For fire and rescue services, public safety is paramount. We would rather those members of the public called for assistance than tackled a serious animal rescue themselves as it could result in individuals placing themselves, and others, in danger."

However, other authorities facing severe financial constraints and potential job losses are poised to introduce widespread charges. Essex Fire and Rescue Service has rescued 575 animals in the past three years, which, at a national average cost of £600 per rescue, could have cost local taxpayers £345,000. The authority is to lose £1m in funding for 2011/12, and is "currently reviewing its policy with regards to charging for animal rescues and in the future may charge".

The move is at odds with advice from the Chief Fire Officers Association, which has warned that "making a charge for rescuing animals... may result in individuals attempting to carry out the rescue, thereby putting themselves in danger". In a statement, the CFOA added: "If this should happen, the financial cost of rescuing the animal and would-be rescuer may well be greater and may well have more serious implications. It is therefore important that firefighters are adequately trained to ensure their own safety and that of others."

The scale of the problem in some areas is now so great that some brigades have personnel specifically trained in dealing with incidents involving animals. Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service last year spent £5,000 on a life-size horse mannequin to practise rescues. The money came from funds donated by local branches of the RSPCA.

Cat facts: Those feline emergencies in full

Curiosity might not always kill the cat, but where trees are concerned it all too often leads to a 999 call. Often desperate and highly elaborate methods to get our feline friends down to earth again, are frequently employed.

One poor moggy from Newcastle spent an entire week in a tree. In the end, the only means of getting him down was more akin to a Tom & Jerry cartoon: it had to be coaxed into jumping into a basket full of salmon. Before finally being lowered to safety.

Then there was the adventurous Tinkerbell who earlier this year scrambled 60ft up a tree in Bristol. It took almost the entire workforce of the local fire station to get her down again.

But it's not only the cats who can find themselves in grave danger: a man from Arizona began shooting at fire-fighters after they refused to rescue his cat back in 2006.

Cat owners can also come unstuck: a Devon man who tried to rescue his pet in August last year required the fire service to come and remove him from the tree, as well as the cat.

But why do cats go up trees in the first place? It appears that they want to get a better view of their surroundings as well as keep out of the reach of predators. Their physiology is perfectly suited for climbing up trees, but that's where it stops. With strong back legs and muscular backs, getting back down again can often prove more tricky for cats. The way a cat's claws are curved means they allow for great grip on the way up, but when the cat tries to make its way down head-first (as they are more inclined to do), their claws no longer work.

The RSPCA advises leaving stranded cats alone to work out how to get down by themselves, if they are healthy and the weather is fair. An early rescue could panic the animal and cause it to climb higher or fall. Creating a soft landing pad and rattling their food tin should get them back to earth safely.

Animal crackers: Pets get into the weirdest places

Horse fallen down 25ft collapsed cave; Surrey, June 2007

Puppy released from wine rack; Bramfield, Suffolk, September 2009

Horse stuck in ice rescued by two crew in dry suits: dragged to safety by a length of hose wrapped around its body; cost £400.95, Delabole, Cornwall, January 2009

Trapped squirrel in satellite dish wiring; Greenock, Strathclyde, June 2008

Iguana rescue; cost £624, Devon and Somerset, 2008/09

Cat (Magnus) stuck up tree while being attacked by magpies; Bothwell, Strathclyde, April 2007

Cat stuck behind bath – unsure if trapped; Kirton, Suffolk, June 2010

Budgie trapped behind gas boiler; Helensburgh, Strathclyde, August 2007

Cat trapped in dumb waiter; Dankeath caravan park, South Ayrshire, June 2007

Badger stuck in garden gate; cost £56.70, Wadebridge, Cornwall, 2008

Horse with head stuck in bath; Lakenheath, Suffolk, March 2008

Cat trapped under bathroom cabinet; Surrey, July 2010

Dog trapped in sofa; cost £399.58, Lincolnshire, September 2008

Sheep stuck in a hole, cost £433, Liskeard, Cornwall, August 2008

Help to move a pod of dolphins from estuary off Fal, Cornwall, into open water; June 2008

Pregnant cat under floor; East Sussex, June 2007

Cat behind kitchen unit; Fife, June 2008

Pony stuck in swimming pool; Surrey, April 2009

Hawk trapped in tree; Glasgow, Strathclyde, June 2007

Cat trapped in washing machine; Lincolnshire, September 2008

Kitten's head stuck in a hole underneath washing machine; cost £44.55, Falmouth, Cornwall, October 2008

Bull rescued from private swimming pool in garden, pool drained and bull lifted out by farm machinery; Fife, August 2008

Squirrel trapped in bedroom; Cumbernauld, Strathclyde, May 2008

Puppy under floorboards; Surrey, December 2008

Injured swan trapped in fence; Surrey, December 2008

Pet rat trapped under children's roundabout; Glasgow, Strathclyde, May 2008

Parrot stuck in tree; Surrey, June 2009

Hedgehog trapped on ledge; cost £211.63, Lincolnshire, July 2009

Buffalo stuck in pond; Fife, February 2008

Buffalo winched from a pond; Fife, June 2008

Dog foot in plughole; cost £211.63, Lincolnshire, February 2010

Hedgehog in drain; East Sussex, August 2008

Dog's head trapped in bottle; Lincolnshire, December 2008

Bullock fell 25ft over cliff; cost £4,500, St Keverne, Cornwall, July 2008

Three dogs trapped in septic tank; cost £652, Perranporth, Cornwall, June 2008

Horse in swimming pool; cost £1,069, Callington, Cornwall, April 2008

Guinea pig trapped behind fireplace; Glasgow, December 2007

Pig in pond; East Sussex, January 2008

It took some 15 firefighters to rescue a single badger; in Leicestershire, 2009

Dog in cat flap; cost £11.63, Lincolnshire, May 2008

Hamster under bath; East Sussex, December 2007

Dog stuck under decking; Stowupland, Suffolk, July 2009

Horse in swimming pool; Little Glemham, Suffolk, March 2009

Horse stuck in compost heap; Surrey, February 2008

Swan trapped in ice – released to open water; Surrey, January 2010

Cat trapped in engine compartment of car; Fife, December 2009

Pigeon on solar panel; East Sussex, November 2008