Many of the homes in this neighborhood have raised foundations ventilated by small, screened openings. If there’s a hole in the screen big enough for a cat, Bargamian pokes in with her ALD to listen for cat sounds. A neighbor dog barks, and she gives a little leap.
When training Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians, Albrecht teaches aspiring pet detectives to investigate hiding places for signs of fur. Once, she used a DNA lab to match fur tufts found at a coyote kill site with fur taken from a cat’s bed at home. This is where Albrecht’s police background really comes in handy.
After some early positive signs, the trail is growing cold. We’ve been searching a three-block area for almost two hours. Even with bad knees and a back injury that permanently sidelined her from police work in 1998, Albrecht shows no sign of fatigue or frustration. She’s tracked pets through bramble-covered ravines and in foul weather. (Many of these adventures are described in her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective.)
When she finally calls off the search, she’s confident we’ve made a good start. The neighborhood is on alert. Frequently, the mere visibility of a search makes all the difference. A few years back, while trailing Bubba, a lost Jack Russell, she was approached by a bystander investigating the commotion, who proclaimed: “I’ve got that dog in my garage.” Case closed.
This morning was the first time any of Brady’s neighbors learned about the missing cats. The chances that she will get a phone call the next time Tinkerbell or Pumpkin surface are far greater now than they were yesterday.
We pile into the truck. Susie is wet but reluctant to stop, as though she knows that all the unsearched yards, alleys and garages out there harbor more cats—a giant smorgasbord.
“There is a lot of pressure on you and your dog to turn up a miracle,” Albrecht says on the way home. But she sees her job as improving the odds of a search from “a needle in a haystack to a coin in a sandbox.”
At the Clovis home Albrecht shares with her 80-year-old mother, two dogs and two cats, Susie is rewarded with playtime. Cheeto, an ample orange feline, allows the Jack Russell to jump her and hold a cheek-full of fur in her muzzle. Like a scene from a romantic comedy, they roll across the carpet. This is actually Cheeto’s job. As a “target cat,” she is used for training dogs to hunt down, but never harm, missing cats. She appears to love her work.
In a back bedroom is Albrecht’s office, home of the Missing Pet Project, the national nonprofit organization she founded in 2004 to research the behavioral patterns of lost pets, educate pet owners in how to properly search for a lost pet, and educate animal shelter staff and volunteers in the science of lost pet behavior. Also, it’s the base of operations for Pet Hunters International, a pet-detective academy established in 2004 to certify MAR technicians, investigators and search dogs. There’s yellow CRIME SCENE tape on the door, and a doormat hanging on the wall reads: “Come back with a warrant.”
“I want you to hear this,” Albrecht says, hitting the button of her answering machine. The plaintive voice of a Texas woman fills the room. Her cat has been missing for a month and she’s desperate for help from the woman who put pet detecting on the map.
“It kills me that I can’t help her,” Albrecht says, her voice breaking. “She shouldn’t have to call me all the way up here.” I’m surprised to see her cry.
After pouring her heart—and much of her bank account—into the effort to create a national organization, Albrecht and her Missing Pet Project have yet to establish stable financial support. And though she’s trained and certified many better-known pet detectives and at least one professional cat profiler, she and her profession still aren’t taken seriously.
On top of it, the realities of Albrecht’s life—financial troubles; job disappointments; health difficulties for her and her mother; and the deaths of Rachel and A. J., the dogs who launched her passion—often collide with her dream, sometimes running her off the rails. Her great idea isn’t an unqualified success yet.