I love mysteries and last week I worked a most fascinating lost pet investigation in Auburn, WA. This was case 10-235, the search for a displaced indoor-only Russian Blue cat named Binky. Here’s what happened:
10:00 p.m. Friday July 16, 2010 – Binky squeezed his way out of a garage door and took off into the night. His owner, Chris Taylor, began a frantic search of the immediate area surrounding her 10 acre ranch that included kitty calling, rummaging through vegetation, and searching the Internet for assistance.
10:00 a.m. Saturday July 17, 2010 – Chris found Missing Pet Partnership’s web site and called for assistance. Through a preliminary consultation, we instructed Chris on how set up feeding stations, humane traps, and create florescent LOST CAT posters in the area. We scheduled a search with a cat detection dog, however, the search dog and volunteers were not available until Monday morning. In the meantime, Chris and her family went door-to-door and obtained permission from neighbors for us to search their property. Everyone in the area was cooperative except one neighbor who did not want the search dog on her property for fear it would scare her chickens.
9:30 p.m. Sunday July 18, 2010- A neighbor two ranches down reported that their dog sniffed out a cat hiding in a bush on their property. It was a skinny blue cat and there was no mistaking Binky! The panicked feline was seen streaking NORTH towards a large tree and brushy area adjacent to a country road (SE 376th Street).
9:00 a.m. Monday July 19, 2010 – Missing Pet Partnership volunteers arrived with search dog Griffin, a “cat detection” dog trained to detect (not track) the scent trail of lost cats. We took Griffin over to the brushy area under the tree to sniff around and he immediately picked up what appeared to be a scent trail. While we were skeptical (because Griffin was a trained detection dog, not a scent tracking dog) we decided to let him follow his nose and see where it led. After all, Griffin was a Beagle, a breed known for trailing rabbit scent trails. Griffin led us SOUTH through a pasture and ultimately right up to a pile of possible cat poop!
Evidence comes in all shapes and sizes (and smells) and there was plenty of information wrapped around that little pile of poop. It was smack dab in the middle of a scent trail that Griffin had tracked. It was moist, not dry, and looked fresh. Fox scat can look somewhat like cat poop but it has a sweet smell, unlike rank cat poop. Although this pile LOOKED like cat poop we didn’t know if it SMELLED like cat poop. And although the poop looked fresh, the only way to really know just how fresh it was would be to physically touch it. Knowing the temperature of the poop would tell us if we were “hot” on the trail of that cat and touching it through a latex glove just wasn’t going to cut it.
I thought about asking my two volunteers to smell and feel the poop for me (after all, this was great “training”) but they just looked at me…from a safe distance. So I took over. The poop was rank like cat poop and it was cold. As luck would have it, the poop was near a chicken coop and Griffin quickly lost interest in the poop and the scent trail and focused on the clucking chickens (these did not belong to the neighbor woman concerned about her chickens). But there was a thicket nearby where he gave a mild cat alert and we speculated that a cat could be hiding in there. As excited as we were about the scent trail and the cat poop, I informed Chris that Griffin’s work was just ONE possible lead.
We put Griffin back to work in his cat detection mode and spent the next few hours searching key areas on ranches throughout the neighborhood. While he didn’t give any other strong alerts on cat scent, we did identify several areas where we told Chris to set up a feeding station along with a digital wildlife camera. One such area was a heavily wooded ravine directly NORTH of the point last seen and just on the other side of SE 376th Street (in the opposite direction from the poop and the thicket). Chris hoped Binky had not crossed that road, but we knew it was possible and that a feeding station and camera would tell us whether he had. Ultimately, Chris had a total of five humane traps and five wildlife cameras spread out over several properties.
9:00 a.m. Tuesday July 20, 2010 – The next morning, I received the following frantic voicemail from Chris: “He’s in the thicket! He’s in the thicket! Call me back, what do I do now?” But the very next voicemail was a down trodden Chris saying, “It’s not him. It’s a tabby with a white chest. He’s NOT in the thicket. Call me.”
11:00 a.m. Tuesday July 20, 2010 – Thankfully, there was a third message from Chris and it went like this: “We got him on camera! It’s him! He’s in the ravine. What do we do now? Call me!”
The next several hours must have felt like days to Chris and her family. I spent time coaching Chris, and convincing her that the strategy of the feeding station / wildlife camera had worked. We knew the exact area where Binky was hiding and all we needed to do was humanely trap him. The most difficult aspect of this incident was that the ravine was actually on the property of the cranky neighbor with the chickens! Chris snuck down there (along with her daughter) anyways, set the humane trap, and waited for several hours. Ultimately they went home, exhausted and feeling a bit defeated.
8:45 p.m. Tuesday July 20, 2010 – Thankfully it wasn’t but a few hours before great news came their way. Here’s how Chris described the recovery in an essay she wrote about the incident:
“The sun was going down. We had another long night ahead hoping to find Binky in the trap at dawn. We drove around our corner and unloaded the car at home. Inside, I collapsed at the table. The phone rang and I didn’t care–I was close to sobbing again. My daughter grabbed up the phone and through slow motion I saw her mouth forming the words “You have him?” We sped back to the neighbor’s around the corner and standing in a driveway were the woman and her son with a cat carrier that contained our precious and very naughty Binky! The woman was smiling and happy for us. Her son described the sudden glimpse of a gray cat in the shed and how he smacked on his workman’s gloves, grabbed the cat, and stashed him in a cat carrier. The laughter, the hugs and joy were dazzling. That neighbor was the one who was uncomfortable with our poking around her property but in the end, she was the gentle soul who captured our cat. We have learned a lot. As Kat said, “All things happen for a reason.” We learned a lot not just about how to catch a cat, but lovely glimpses into ourselves, each other, and strangers who quickly became friends.”
That cat poop turned out to be a red herring. Thankfully, due to training and experience, we did not get tunnel vision. It would’ve been easy to only focus the search area SOUTH of the escape point in the area of the poop evidence. But in the end, effective search strategy and good pet detective skills paid off. Search dogs have their limitations, poop evidence can be misleading, but the camera never lies!