How We Found Him…

May 29, 2011

Part I of a two part story

The good news is that Ted is back… and, honestly, other than my looming emergency room bill, there is no bad news.

One of the most frustrating things about losing a pet, especially a cat, is feeling as though you don’t have any resources. There are a lot of resources for dogs – even animal control will help you catch a pet dog — but for cats, in a state where licensing isn’t required, you can start to feel like no one cares.

I wish I was kidding but, quite literally, while on hold with animal control to report a roaming dog with a hurt paw who wouldn’t come to me (near the bushes where Ted was hiding while lost) I listened to hold music and a repeating message letting me know that “animal control knows that there is an issue with free roaming cats, but [they] will not come out to catch free roaming cats.” At animal control they feel that “free roaming cats are a community issue” and urge callers to call another number to find out about TNR* programs. Sadly “free roaming” also means “displaced pet.” **

As for the one critter catcher service in the Phoenix metro area I found that listed lost pet assistance on their website, well, when they finally called me back (four hours after I left a message, at 7 pm) I was standing five feet away from my terrified, displaced pet. I explained my situation — that I could see Ted but that I could not catch him. The response? “Well, I don’t know what you want us to do. We don’t do that. You have traps out? The traps will work eventually.” (The traps didn’t work eventually, but we’ll get there in another post.)

Like anyone else in 2011, when I have a problem the first place I turn for further information is Google and Google happened to take me to the most useful resource we had in the saga of the missing Ted. Deborah Cooke – Pet Detective. That’s right, a Pet Detective. Now, shake any thoughts of Ace Ventura from your head, this is a serious thing. Deborah works with a team of four trained search dogs, and they travel all over the western United States to help families find their missing pets. She’s looked for everything from cats to monkeys, and if I hadn’t been an emotional basket case, working with her would have been fun. As it was, working with her was wonderful – she was full of useful information and was incredibly reassuring as we started the search.

Ted had fallen from a second story window on a Sunday, and by that night I had found Deborah’s number. When I called, she actually wanted to wait and see if he came back on his own (as sometimes cats do) but understood that with the wedding coming up, and our impending move, time was of the essence. She agreed that if he hadn’t returned by Tuesday morning, she would come out and help. In the meantime I had found his collar snagged in the bushes below the window he’d fallen out of (a blessing in disguise) and she instructed me to preserve his scent. I had already put the collar in a baggie (I watch a lot of procedural crime dramas), and she had me add some untreated cotton pads to absorb the scent.

From Sunday through Monday I walked miles and miles, over and over the same five city-block area of our neighborhood. I was out constantly – even at midnight, on my own, with a flashlight. I hung posters on doors, I spoke to neighbors I had never seen, I talked to the security guard at the shopping center across the street (who thought I said I lost my bag and suggested someone may have thrown it in the dumpster – the look on my face must have been pretty terrific before I figured out what he was saying). We began setting out food where we fed Ted when he was still a feral kitten, and I tried to keep it together while progressively deteriorating. My dear friend Rae accompanied me to three different animal shelters in the area and held me up in the parking lot, when my knees gave out from crying so hard I could barely breath.

When Tuesday morning rolled around, I was ready for something positive to happen – we still hadn’t seen Ted. I greeted Deborah outside with the scent kit, a Rubbermaid of dry food for shaking and my cobbled together emergency search kit: a nylon, pink purse stuffed with cans of stinky Fancy Feast, a flashlight, masking tape, and additional missing/reward posters. After a little paperwork Deborah explained a little bit about the procedure and that we would be working the dogs one at a time and took the scent bag from me, letting the first dog, Dudley, out of the van. Dudley got dressed, into a blaze orange search dog vest, and had his lead moved back on his work harness – a signal to him that there was a job to do. She opened the bag and held it out to Dudley and then said, “Find it – find Ted!” Dudley immediately headed for the bushes where Ted had landed – and then we were off.

One by one all four dogs took Deborah and I on the same loop – within three buildings of our apartment, with an initial (seemingly old scent) loop though the parking lot of the shopping center next door. It appeared that Ted was nearby, although he was deep in hiding as the landscapers were out in full force. (A week later, when the landscapers were back I would see Ted running at breakneck speed from a lawn mower and almost lose my mind, so I know for sure that this is what was going on that day when we were working with the dogs.) We used a map of the apartment complex and slowly, but surely, not only figured out Ted’s route but were able to rule out areas – the office complex across a busy street? There was absolutely no indication that Ted had ever been there, likewise the far end of the complex, or the far side of the shopping center. These were all good things – first of all, he was staying close and not crossing busy streets; secondly our search area was much smaller than we feared and had been trying to cover. This would make things easier.

Deborah and I spent about five hours together, and before left she pointed me to a handful of useful websites, and gave me a lot of helpful information. She also assured me that we were doing everything right – which, coming from a professional, is more helpful that one would think. When your pet is missing, you spend a lot of time second guessing everything that led up to the disappearance and everything that you’ve done since.

That night would be the first time I saw Ted since he had fallen out the window. While we didn’t get him inside that night (more on that in my next post) he was exactly where she said he would be. And, over the next seven days, any time we saw him he was exactly where she said he would be. And, over the next seven days, Deborah called. She offered new ideas, listened to my questions and new theories and offered feedback. She was the only professional in Arizona to actively help us and for that I am eternally grateful. Without her help I don’t think we would have Ted back even now, and I know that I would have been even less able to cope with the search that we had to undertake and the things we had to do to get him back inside.

Things to keep in mind when hiring a pet detectives:

1. Make sure you get a detective with Missing Animal Response (MAR) trained and certified dogs. There are some less than reputable people out there. Go to the Missing Pet Partnership website and use their list of reputable pet detectives.
2. There are a couple of ways in which dogs are trained to seek cats and other animals – some dogs (MAR cat detection dogs) are trained to seek cats specifically and will take you to each cat in the area. Others, like Deborah’s dogs, are trained to follow a specific scent trail. Make sure you know what to expect and that the type of search will work for your particular situation.
3. Have realistic expectations. Deborah told me before she came out that it wasn’t likely we would find Ted while we were out with the dogs. Cats are clever hiders and when they’re scared they can be very difficult to find. Once in a while she and her dogs will walk right up onto a missing dog, but that’s not usually the case with cats. Know that you’re going to narrow down your search, but that you may have some leg work to do once your pet detective leaves. If they’re a good pet detective, you’ll feel more confident after they’ve helped, and they’ll follow up with you to ensure that you’re making progress.

In the next entry I’ll talk about what went on after Deborah left, the different tools and strategies we used, and what finally worked. (Hint: it was a combination of several different things.)

*TNR = trap, neuter, release an increasingly popular “solution” to free roaming and feral cats in urban communities. I have mixed feelings about TNR programs. They do diminish the number of animals in shelters, and the number of animals given a death sentence, but it’s kind of like writing off a huge population of animals. I might write more about this another time, it’s too complex an issue for a footnote.
**I’ve begun calling Ted displaced because, after that first Tuesday, he was no longer lost. We knew where he was, we saw him regularly, he was just too traumatized to find his way indoors. There is a significant difference between how I felt about Ted’s status that morning and how I felt about him later that night – and there is a significant difference in the level of frustration I felt regarding our ability to get any animal control professionals to help.

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