It’s a cloudy, late-winter morning in Clovis, just outside Fresno, Calif. The night before had been stormy, and later, a tornado will touch down nearby. You wouldn’t want your dog or cat roaming in weather like this. But somewhere out there, hungry and wet, might be Tinkerbell and Pumpkin. The skinny, tiger-striped, two-year-old mother cat and her look-a-like five-month-old kitten have been missing for two weeks.
Owner Becky Brady had let the cats out for a little break. “It was late afternoon and they were sniffing bushes while my daughters played,” Brady says. “Then, suddenly, they were gone.” Like many indoor-only cats, they had neither collars nor microchips. To make matters worse, Brady and her three daughters will be moving to Denver in five days.
We learned about the cats from a posting on craigslist.com. Eager to demonstrate how Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians do their job, Kat Albrecht called Brady to offer her services. MAR uses the same investigative techniques, technologies and strategies that police detectives and search-and-rescue technicians employ to find missing persons. “Some people think it’s a scam,” Albrecht says. “They think we’re nuts.” But Brady is game, or desperate, or both.
So here we are in a modest neighborhood of single-family homes and condos at 8:30 in the morning. Albrecht, in jeans, work boots and a Day-Glo orange “Lost Pet Search” coat, looks every inch the former police Bloodhound handler, crime scene investigator, search-and-rescue manager, and police officer that she is. Parked nearby is her dark green truck with reflective SEARCH and RESCUE bumper stickers and a PETHNTR license plate in a frame that reads: “Get lost. Make my Bloodhound’s day.” In the past eight years, Albrecht has conducted about 150 full-scale searches and helped reunite approximately 1,800 owners with their pets through consultations.
Before we search a square inch, Albrecht asks Brady a few questions about the missing cats. Last sighting? Habits? Experience outdoors? Temperament? Neighbors with a grudge? She’s creating a “feline personality profile” that will help her determine probabilities for the missing cats across a spectrum that ranges from theft, rescue and unintentional disposal to injury, illness, death, deliberate displacement and more.
Barring intervention, “there are predictable patterns for how a dog or cat will act when he gets free,” Albrecht explains. Those patterns dictate search strategies. Of course, it’s easier with cats. With dogs, several x-factors, including a much greater likelihood of human involvement, make predictions more difficult (see below).
Temperament is key. According to Brady, Tinkerbell is outgoing with humans and dogs. If she’d been “skittish and xenophobic,” Albrecht would have recommended humane traps with food, the best way to capture a frightened, hungry cat seeking food under the cover of darkness. She’s recovered many this way. But since Tinkerbell has a “curious clown” temperament, a daylight search of the immediate area using a cat-detection dog is the order of the day.
This is no undercover operation. Seasoned volunteers Beverlee Bargamian and Jill Buchanan, also decked out in neon, join Brady and Albrecht. A retired US Marshal, Bargamian wields an amplified listening device (ALD), the little dish and headphones favored by hunters and PIs, and a turbo flashlight.
Buchanan has her hands full with Susie, a four-year-old Jack Russell Terrier tricked out with her own “search dog” shabrack, a neon-orange vest. Susie is a cat-detection dog. She searches for kitties indiscriminately and in the process, we hope she flushes out the two we are looking for. She’s angling to get started, poised on her back legs and straining at her leash.