“The Outer Banks Redneck Geek”

By on May 17, 2023

Ray Wells climbs to new heights to rescue cats and drones

Missy Eppard, Barbie and Ray Wells after the rescue. (Photos courtesy of Ray Wells )

On the morning of May 9, Missy Eppard woke up to a phone call from her neighbor who had spotted her young cat, Barbie, stuck high up in a tree outside his second-story window. The neighbor tried to help her get Barbie down with a ladder, but she was too high in the tree.

The next day, after learning that the fire department couldn’t come to the rescue, the neighborhood was brainstorming how to get the cat down from the tree. They decided to post on the Nextdoor app that neighbors use to exchange trusted information, give and get help and build real-world connections with those nearby.

Within 15 minutes, a man by the name of Ray Wells walked onto the property clad in his tree climbing uniform and spiked climbing shoes. Within two minutes, he had lowered Barbie down in his designated cat duffel bag to her relieved owner with all of the neighbors cheering him on. “I’m still blown away by how quickly he did it,” recalled Eppard.

Wells, 56, is a professional tree climber who also works as an IT technician and calls himself “The Outer Banks Redneck Geek.” And he has been scaling trees since he was 10 years old after watching his father and his colleagues in the Navy climb the rappelling towers at their Naval base in Alameda, California.

“I’d watch these guys [and think] ‘man, I really want to do that,’” said Wells.

A Kitty Hawk resident since 2006, the recent cat rescue was not the first for Wells. Given his ability to scale trees up to 80 feet, Wells is called upon by many of the local tree service companies for his climbing skill. Wells said it was Ron Rainwater of Rainwater Tree and Landscape, who convinced him to make his first cat rescue three years ago in Currituck.

In that case, a cat called Gus, had been stuck 60 feet up in a tree for four days. Wells was concerned after hearing stories of cats getting spooked and jumping out of trees, but his calm demeanor put the cat at ease, and once he got to the cat’s level, it jumped into his arms. According to Wells, what followed was like a comedic sketch as he tried to figure out how to get the cat’s arms and legs into his old green, heavy, cotton military laundry bag that would become his designated cat rescue bag.

Animals aren’t the only thing Wells rescues. Rainwater also called upon Wells to save a $3,000 drone for the Discovery Channel when it was in Currituck filming a documentary with Dennis Anderson of Grave Digger. Another time, he was called on to save a drone, but it was stuck in a cluster of trees, and the person who lost the drone wasn’t sure exactly what tree it was in.

This wasn’t a problem for Wells who has the ability to go from treetop to treetop. “I’m six foot two, so I look like an orangutan sometimes, up there in the trees kind of swinging from tree to tree,” he declared.

Then there was the time a large model airplane got stuck at the very top of a roughly 80-foot-tall pine tree, to the dismay of its owner, Retired Air Force pilot and Southern Shores resident Major Grant Dick. The airplane had a wingspan of four feet, so Wells, under strict orders not to let anything happen to the expensive plane, cut an 80-foot path through the tree branches to glide the plane down to safety.

After growing up getting a taste of adrenaline from climbing to high up in trees, Wells joined the Air Force in 1983 and began jumping out of planes at 17 years old as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He became a paratrooper, but his role was in technology managing missile systems. Wells says he has always valued both the brains and the brawn. In high school, Wells recalled, he was the captain of the chess team and a varsity wrestler.

“I always joked with people, ‘Hey, if you make fun of me for being the chess team captain, I’ll body slam ya’,” Wells joked.

After moving his family from Northern Virginia to the Outer Banks in 2006, Wells got a job working IT for the Dare County Schools and then for the Outer Banks Hospital. He continued climbing trees, but mainly for sport and exercise. But word got around, and his coworkers started asking him to come to take down trees in their yard. He needed extra money to pay for his daughter’s college and got more and more business, eventually striking out on his own in a dual career of “trees and IT.”

While trees and IT may seem like an unlikely match, Wells says they are more similar than people think. Just like chess, both require thinking a few steps ahead, solving a puzzle, and assessing multiple variables.

When it comes to trees, that requires figuring out the safest, most effective method to cut down a tree that is 80 feet high and weighs up to 14,000 pounds or assessing the type of tree to decide whether a branch will break if he steps on it. One of the most important decisions for Wells is whether a tree should be cut down at all. Growing up in California, he explained, he was raised with a strong sense of respect for nature.

“If there’s an abundance of something, then it’s not so critical, but when there’s not an abundance, there’s scarcity,” said Wells. “I always tell them, ‘You know what, I can always come back. I can’t put it back…So if I cut 40 years of growth, it’s done. You got to wait another 40 years to get something like that back. And so that’s really the attitude that I come with.”

Ray Wells up in the heights. (Photos courtesy of Ray Wells)

When he’s high up into the trees, Wells takes a moment to appreciate his surroundings.

“I relish the fact that I get some of the best views on the Outer Banks,” he said.

But the biggest reward for Wells is the feeling he gets being out in the community and helping others. Eppard tells the Voice that when Wells rescued her cat, he wouldn’t take a dime.

“Ray is what makes the Outer Banks the community that it is,” she said. “He is truly a ray of light. He keeps the Outer Banks safe, and our stuff protected, and he’s so genuinely kind about it…He’s a genuinely awesome person to have on the OBX.”



  • Drajon

    One helluva tree climber.

    Wednesday, May 17 @ 5:22 pm
  • Nancy Griffin

    What a great story! I worked with Ray for many years at DCS and never knew the back story about how his childhood sparks evolved into such amazing abilities. The fact that Ray now shares his talents so freely is the spirit that helps make the OBX such a wonderful place to call home. Neighbor helping neighbor.

    Wednesday, May 17 @ 5:26 pm
  • Vince

    50+ years in the Fire Department, I’ve never seen a cat skeleton in a tree. When they get hungry enough, their natural instincts will prevail.
    For more cred, I’ve worked high angle & tactical rescue for much of my career.
    BTW, I lived in and worked big timber in Appalachia.
    I think it’s wonderfully awsome he’s found a niche for his skills and gifts. I prayerfully sing him the wish for Yeha-Noha (google, or better yet you tube it)
    PS: As an animal lover I started and established the Rappahannock Humane Society.

    Thursday, May 18 @ 12:34 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Vince, appreciate the encouraging words regarding a cat ultimately freeing itself from the tree, but I’m sure you can imagine the growing anxiety of their owners as they wait for that to occur.

    Thursday, May 18 @ 6:18 pm