By Ilona Idlis, UW News Lab
Greenwood resident Becky Refae never expected her cat, Sugar, to go missing. After all, the chatty Siamese had been an indoors cat for most of her 11 years and, like a dog, always came when called. But after years abroad, the Refae family returned to Seattle and decided to try to allow their pet a little more freedom. They were reassured by Sugar’s behavior. The kitty stayed close to home during her outdoor ventures and still preferred her indoor kingdom.
So when Sugar didn’t return one night last September, Refae panicked.
“We just couldn’t imagine what happened. Did she get spooked by a raccoon, or follow another cat? Did she get hurt nearby and get disoriented? There were a million scenarios running through our heads,” she recalled in an email.
Refae immediately set to work on the search. She phoned her local veterinarian and the Seattle Animal Shelter, printed up posters and hung them on telephone poles, then walked the neighborhood calling Sugar’s name and straining to hear the familiar meow.
The community board at the Seattle Animal Shelter is plastered with missing animal fliers. The most effective postings use large, color photos and bold headings with memorable descriptions, like “BLACK LAB.”
Her husband decided to expand the search by posting to the PhinneyWood forum. The online response was immediate. Tips and sightings poured in as comments and phone calls. Though the Refaes sped to the mentioned locations, Sugar was nowhere to be found.
“It did keep our hopes,” Refae said. If people were seeing her, she was at least OK.
By the fourth day, Refae wasn’t so sure. Then she got the call. A family living off Aurora Avenue North and North 110th Street — almost 30 blocks away from home — found Sugar trembling under their car. Both of her back legs were broken and she crouched, terrified, unable to move.
Refae rushed Sugar to an emergency animal hospital, fearing permanent damage. Thankfully, a next-day operation and weeks of love and painkillers helped Sugar to a full recovery and the Siamese now bounds around the house with lots of energy and a slight limp.
Becky Refae’s Siamese cat, Sugar, was missing for four days before a Greenwood family found her hiding under a car, injured. They used the phone number on Sugar’s ID tag to contact Refae. (Photo by Becky Refae.)
This story wouldn’t have a happy ending if it wasn’t for Sugar’s collar. The family that found her was outside the mile radius of paper fliers and hadn’t seen the online forum. Instead, it was Refae’s phone number on the cat’s ID tag that proved crucial to Sugar’s rescue.
“Best $10 I ever spent,” Refae concluded.
Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS) worker Kara Main-Hester, too, cannot over-emphasize the importance of pet identification. This means microchips, licenses and collars.
“If you have all of those three things up to date, your animal will get home to you,” Main-Hester assured. But no amount of posters or postings can help a found animal that can’t be traced to its owner.
The SAS takes in strays daily and the pattern of reunification is telling. Of the 821 stray dogs received last year, over 65 percent were reunited with their owners. Conversely, only 12.3 percent of the 739 found cats made it home. Why?
“Dogs are more likely to have identification,” Main-Hester explained. “A lot of people believe that cats shouldn’t have to wear collars, but that leaves no way to reunite them.”
Proper identification is a three-step process that can ultimately save a four-legged family member. A grain-sized microchip implanted in an animal’s nape is the first and most permanent form of ID. Most of the time, dogs and cats are tagged at their local shelters and vet’s offices, which makes those locations the default address on the chip.
Seattle Animal Shelter worker Kara Main-Hester demonstrates the microchip scanner on Melissa. The grain-sized chips are usually implanted in the animal’s nape, and just a swipe of the scanner will pick up the coded number and company information.
Jessica Ancheta of Phinney Ridge Animal Hospital encourages owners to update the microchips with their personal information and phone number. The re-registration process requires a small fee — around $20 depending on the company — but provides a direct route back to the owner.
“If [owners] don’t have the chips registered, it’s keeping [the Animal Hospital] as the middleman,” she explained, which means the company calls the animal hospital first and delays the process.
Pet licenses are the next line of defense. They’re required by law for cats and dogs in the city of Seattle and usually provide the SAS with the most accurate data for its license/microchip cross-reference database. Moreover, license fees directly fund the shelter’s facilities.
“Collars are third on the rung,” Main-Hester said. “It’s the easiest to use for you and me as normal public citizens, but it’s the most likely to get lost.”
Keeping dogs on leashes and cats indoors are common sense ways of preventing physical escape, but if they fail, the chances of finding your animal are greatly increased by following the guide below.
If Your Animal is Lost:
First, notify and visit the shelter immediately. The SAS is a central location for the area’s found pets and should be the first place an owner checks. This step is particularly important if the animal has no form of ID, as the shelter is only required to hold unidentified pets for three business days before they’re put up for adoption. So, come in person to visually verify your animal and come often.
Second, alert the community. Main-Hester says online and print postings play an equal part in establishing “a local rescue network,” increasing the number of people looking for your animal. Do both. Post to Craigslist and local blogs, such as PhinneyWood and MyBallard. Print fliers with large, color photos and emphasize key descriptor words, like “CALICO TABBY” or “BLACK LAB.” Hang them in your neighborhood vet’s offices and community centers. Mount your fliers on fluorescent poster boards and pin them by busy intersections. You only have a few seconds to grab drivers’ attention so use bright colors and bold type to convey what’s missing quickly. (For more tips on formatting fliers, visit missingpetpartnership.org.)
This flier is an example of poor formatting. The black and white photo doesn’t help the viewer recognize a generically colored cat and the type doesn’t jump out with an immediate description. Since this cat doesn’t have any identification, like a microchip or collar, the chances of reunification are slim.
Third, hit the pavement. Walk the streets while calling your pet’s name. Talk with your neighbors. Physically check hiding spots like porches and garages. (This step is particularly important when looking for cats, who tend to hide silently when hurt.) If your animal is hiding nearby, you may need to set up feeding stations with humane traps to lure them home. The SAS can deploy workers to build them.
If You Find a Lost Animal:
Let the animal come to you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to calm a skittish pet. Chasing after a scared dog or cat will only drive it farther from home. Worse, you may get bitten and “that’s a situation no one wants,” Main-Hester reminded.
“If they’re handle-able and friendly, they’re probably just a couple doors away from home,” she added. In that case, try to entice the animal with food and corral it inside a fence. Check the pet for a collar with owner information, as it may be your neighbor’s.
Notify the SAS of your find. If there’s no visible identification, don’t just house the animal. Instead, take it to any local veterinarian or shelter during business hours to be scanned for a microchip. You don’t need an appointment. Check local bulletin boards and online forums for matching descriptions. Finally, if none of these methods yields results, do not hesitate to take the animal to the SAS. The owner will think to visit the shelter, not your house.
Fortunately, the SAS has an excellent adoption record and will find the animal a good home, even if reunification isn’t possible. With 300 available foster homes and large on-site facilities, the shelter never euthanizes for space. In fact, the SAS had a 91 percent “save rate” for all its animals last quarter, placing it in the top ranks nationally.
“We’re really, really proud of it,” Main-Hester said. “’We’re one of the highest municipal shelters in the country and that’s because the Seattle community is absolutely amazing and really cares for its animals, and adopts here first.”
(Ilona Idlis is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)