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.
“I’m not the first person to use a dog to find lost pets,” Albrecht says. But she probably is the first to codify the training and to try to create a national resource. When she originally suggested using one dog to find another dog (an invention born of necessity when her police Bloodhound A.J. went missing in 1996), it was a heresy to her colleagues in the K-9 unit and her search-and-rescue peers. They considered the idea a misuse of a good dog and a waste of training. “I lost a lot of friends,” she says.
Currently, Albrecht has two scent-detection dogs at home: Chase, an 11-year-old Bloodhound once used in police work to track criminals, and Kody, a three-year-old Whippet-mix. Both can identify individual dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, ferrets, iguanas and geckos (and probably much more) by scent.
Albrecht and Brady start knocking on doors, asking for permission to check backyards. To my surprise, no one says no, although one homeowner looks at the search crew and says under her breath, “She must really love her cat.”
We quickly circle a well-kept yard that offers few hiding spots for a cat. Buchanan directs Susie to “check here” and “check here” along the fence and edge of the house. The dog sniffs eagerly but determines almost immediately that this yard is a bust. “We rely on their body language to tell us what they smell,” says Albrecht, who never doubts a well-trained dog’s nose. “They live in a world that’s different from ours.”
The next yard is a potential bonanza. There’s scrap wood, an upside-down stroller and lots of other domestic junk on the patio. As we peer under bushes and old mattresses, Albrecht is answering Brady’s questions. She sounds like counselor, explaining why the cats might not respond to calls of “Tinky.”
“A cat’s only protection from predators is to hide and be quiet,” she explains.
Why haven’t they returned home?
Because Tinkerbell and Pumpkin are indoor cats, they haven’t established an outdoor territory. Albrecht explains that the world beyond the threshold was new and unknown. There’s no reason to think that once they wandered off, they’d even be able to recognize home.
“My friend thinks they might be stolen,” Brady offers. “They are really beautiful.”
“Well, maybe,” Albrecht says, not terribly convincingly. “But this was the first time you ever let them out.”
She’s already explained to me that pet-theft is a common explanation. People often want to believe their animal has been stolen because it means closure. “They want to stop grieving,” she says. It happens, but it is rarer than you’d think.
At the next house, a woman gives a dead-on, uncoached description that matches Brady’s: a skinny, white-and-tan, gregarious cat, seen several times in the past two weeks. Pay dirt. Albrecht said the two cats would be nearby. Meanwhile, Susie pulls Buchanan behind a shed, and she sees tiny, muddy paw-prints on the fence. A frisson of excitement shoots through the group.
We follow the direction of the sighting. An elderly woman lets all of us, Susie included, tromp through her house to the backyard to check a garden crowded with tropical plants, bushes, a wishing well and outdoor bric-a-brac. The team is gleeful at the sight of so many potential hiding places. (After a few hours of this type of work, you never look at a yard the same way again.) Susie lets out a series of shrill barks and bolts for a corner. A fat gray cat leaps over the fence.
“Gooooood girl,” Buchanan and Albrecht praise her. The former shelter dog vibrates with excitement. It’s not the right cat, but she’s not expected to discriminate. She’s nailed her quarry.
With a cat already here, Albrecht doesn’t expect to find Tinkerbell and Pumpkin sharing this territory, but we make a thorough check. The woman watches through her glass doors, and as we file back through her home, says she’ll pray for the cats.
Other neighbors have seen nothing but promise to look, and then tell us sad stories about how they lost a pet. On several posts nearby, flyers describing a lost dog are water-soaked and illegible. On this gloomy morning, lost pets seem like a universal condition. According to Albrecht, no one keeps track of the number of pets that go astray annually. “We know how many cars were stolen in a year. And how many guns. But we can’t say how many pets go missing,” she says, clearly disgusted.
As we head to a new block, a man shouts across the street, “Are you for real?”
We pass a yard with a broken television set and pile of clothing on the sidewalk. The garage door is cracked open and junk spews through it. “I’d like to get in there,” Bargamian says. But no one is home to give permission.
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.
But still she persists, and it looks like things might be turning around. The Today Show recently taped a segment featuring Albrecht’s work, and she’s in discussion with television executives about a reality show based on MAR cases. That sort of exposure could generate the momentum she needs to take her detection dogs from the fringe into the mainstream. Clearly, we are in the middle of this story. It’s too early to say how things will end.
Postscript: The fate of Becky Brady’s cats remains a mystery—after the search, Albrecht never heard from Brady again.
Kat Albrecht offers certification seminars for aspiring Missing Animal Response technicians; for more information, or for helpful advice if you’ve lost a pet, visit www.missingpetpartnership.org .
Thumbnail photograph by Scott Schulman
Portrait Photograph by Don Davis