Engineer, conductor rescue miracle cat that hitched cold train ride in Alberta

A tabby cat is expected to make a full recovery after nearly freezing to death while hitching a ride on a CN train — and the conductor who rescued the cat may have found its original owners.

'I see this little cat underneath the second engine above the wheels on a platform, frozen in snow and ice'

CN conductor Brad Slater and Q199, the cat named after the train on which it was found hitching a ride, are enjoying getting to know each other. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

A tabby cat is expected to make a full recovery after nearly freezing to death while hitching a ride on a CN train — and the conductor who rescued the cat may have found its original owners.

A train crew happened to find the feline under the engine deck of their train in Wainwright, Alta. on Sunday.

Train conductor Brad Slater and engineer William Munsey were called early Sunday morning to take CN train Q199 from Wainwright to Edmonton. It was bitterly cold  — almost –40 C with the wind chill, and the train was delayed.

A priority train was coming through Wainwright, and it's protocol for other train crews to wait for and inspect these trains coming by. Slater decided to kill time and walk past the train's two engines, inspecting them in the morning darkness with a flashlight to ensure everything was safe.

One engine had stopped working and was frozen solid. 
CN conductor Brad Slater describes how he rescued tabby Q199 on a frigid prairie evening 1:34

"All I heard was the angriest, saddest cat cry," Slater said. "So I'm shining my light and there I see this little cat underneath the second engine above the wheels on a platform, frozen in snow and ice."

Slater called over Munsey, who said he expected the worst. 

"I thought the previous crew had run over somebody or he found an arm or leg or something," Munsey said. "I've heard that voice before, and it's not very good."

Upon seeing the cat Munsey said he didn't think it would live. But Slater said he'd keep it if it did. And when he called to it, the cat jumped right into his arms. 

It was almost as if it knew how close it had been to dying and knew exactly which human had saved it.- William Munsey, locomotive engineer

The men brought the male cat into the train with them and warmed it with a T-shirt. Initially, it sat there with its eyes wide open. It was crying, but no sounds were coming out of its mouth, Munsey said. It was missing part of its right ear, one tooth, and its paws were dotted with frostbite.

Slater offered the cat water and small, ripped up pieces of beef jerky. The cat happily devoured the food and settled into the middle seat between both men for the remainder of the journey to Edmonton.

"Within five hours it was curled up on his lap … he was pushing his face against Brad's arm," Munsey said. "It was almost as if it knew how close it had been to dying and knew exactly which human had saved it."

Frostbitten but affectionate

Slater named the cat Q199, after the train — Q, for short. It's now with him, his wife and three other cats in Edmonton. A veterinary checkup on Monday showed Q might lose his other ear due to frostbite, Munsey said.

But despite his ordeal, he's affectionate and purrs nonstop. 

"He's more lovable and cuddly and affectionate than any of my cats I've ever had," Slater said. "He knows who saved him."

Q199 is recovering nicely at Slater's Edmonton home. (Supplied/Brad Slater)

Slater has been trying to find the cat's owners. Since CBC first ran this story on Monday, he said numerous people have reached out to him.

He initially believed the cat boarded the train in Saskatoon. But after speaking with an engineer who drove the train to Melville, Sask., he now thinks the cat may have climbed aboard there, when the train stopped briefly.

The engine may have attracted the cat as a warm place to sleep.

He said a couple from Melville have sent him photos of their cat, Tiger, who went missing from their home in late November. Though the photos look remarkably similar to Q, Slater said he might meet with the couple to determine whether the cat remembers them.

The couple has offered to pay the vet bills incurred so far, Slater said. He said he's willing to return the cat to its rightful owners.

"It's the right thing to do. It's going to be tough ... [but] they used to work for CN, I believe, too," Slater said.

"From what I hear, they have grandkids that are very upset."

Munsey said he doesn't know how the cat survived when the engine stopped and the deck froze. They found the feline by chance — the men never really had a reason to go outside in the cold to check the train, and animals certainly aren't allowed inside the train.

But maybe it was just meant to be, he said.

"I'm not a sentimentalist but ... we kind of thought it was the right thing to do."

With files from Joelle Seal