Chapter 6: Sophie
People sometimes ask me why I do this work and how I got started. Naturally, I choose this work because there is a great need for it. Dozens of pets go missing every day in the Seattle metro area alone. Also, I do this work because of my cat Charlie, who I lost in 1997. I might have been able to find him if I knew how to look properly back then. I also do this work because of Kelsy. I got her as a puppy at 9 weeks old, from a shelter, and from that moment, I wanted to do some sort of work where we were partners working side by side. When I found out about Missing Pet Partnership and Kat Albrecht, I knew instantly that I wanted do this work with Kelsy. I only wish I knew about this field of work much earlier in my life. I know of many people who started training to become a Missing Animal Response Technician (what I am, sometimes referred to as a Pet Detective) or a handler for a trained, certified search dog. Relatively few people stick with the training and go on to work missing pet cases on their own or as part of a nonprofit organization. It’s not an easy way to make a living, and every day you deal with people in crisis because they have lost a family member. I might have been one of those people who learns about this work and dabbles in it a while before moving on to other interests, but my experience with Sophie at the beginning of my training really sank in deep, making me committed to helping however I can.
Sophie was just a puppy, a huge puppy, when she escaped in June of 2008, about the time I started volunteering for MPP. She was a skittish puppy who had not been properly socialized by the backyard breeder who sold her. She backed out of her collar while on a walk, and then she bolted when they called her name and chased after her. Her owner, Mike, contacted MPP at our booth at the animal shelter, which we have set up many years on July 5th for all the dogs scared away by fireworks. We coached owners of missing pets on the best ways to find them. Mike was advised to use posters to generate sightings of Sophie, and soon she was reported about 5 miles from the point of escape, in a wooded ravine. Kat Albrecht took on the search for Sophie as a learning experience for herself and her students. Kat invested many hours learning what would work and what wouldn’t work when trying to catch Sophie. You can read her account of events on Missing Pet Partnership’s web page by Googling “Missing Pet Partnership Sophie”. For 40 days, MPP volunteers tried a variety of luring and trapping techniques to catch Sophie, but she was too scared or too smart for these inventions. We tried standard humane traps, and volunteers eventually built a large net that fell from a framework when magnets were de-energized. We used infrared lights and cameras. Hundreds of hours donated by at least 16 volunteers went into Sophie’s capture. Sophie taught us so much about difficult-to-capture dogs.
On August 15th, 2008, about 15 volunteers gathered at a campground in a wooded ravine near Dash Point State Park. Kat ran the operation, detailing everyone’s assignment. A veterinarian and an animal control officer were on hand to help out as needed. Sophie had been conditioned to expect food right around sunset. This time, her first dollop of canned food contained a sedative, which the vet had prescribed based on her estimated weight. We watched on the video monitors as the infrared camera recorded Sophie slowly falling asleep near the feeding area. I was wound up, ready to run and tackle Sophie as soon as I got the word. The plan was that I would be with the primary capture team, including the vet, the ACO, and a fourth person to handle the radio communications. As we all waited for Sophie to fall asleep, I went outside the building and peeked around the corner at her. The termites swarm every year about that time, and I brushed away several of them as they fluttered around randomly. I was wondering why my team wasn’t there with me, but they were inside, where we were supposed to be, wondering where I was. I had a spotlight, but no radio, so they couldn’t contact me. As another team moved into position on the east side, I heard someone step on a twig. The snap was probably a tiny sound, but it sounded like an explosion in that quiet, when we were all tense, anticipating the capture. At the snap, Sophie’s eyes popped open wide, and she stumbled to her feet, running drunkenly to the west.
Seeing that our quarry had flown, I turned on my spotlight, shining it on her fleeing form as she disappeared into the woods. I heard Kat’s voice on all the radios, saying, “Move in now! Everyone move in!” Brian and Marie saw Sophie coming toward them, but when she saw them, she veered toward the south, up the sandy slope. I tried to follow, but the sandy bank just crumbled beneath my feet, leaving me running in place. I had to clamber up the branches of hazelnuts and vine maples to get up the bank. Once at the top, I saw Brian was headed south through the thick vegetation, the way she had gone. I took a path out into people’s back yards so I could run quietly along the grass and outflank her. I left my spotlight off, hoping to sneak up on her. I don’t know why—I don’t think I heard a noise or anything—but for some reason I turned around and looked back toward the house. There was Sophie, looking at me, wondering which way to run. She thought about running past me, since the yard was fenced on three sides. Instead, she made a lunge at the wooden fence, five feet tall. She probably could have made if she wasn’t drugged. She fell back, and I tackled her, falling on her at the edge of the grass. She struggled for a second, and then she just relaxed with a sigh. I had her wrapped in my arms, and wasn’t about to let go for anything in the world. She was remarkably clean for being a long-haired dog living in the brambles for seven weeks. Mostly by accident, I caught Sophie. It was the best feeling in the world to hold her in my arms.
I started calling for Brian, to get a little help. The lights came on in the backyard, and the homeowner came out to see what the problem was. He was remarkably calm, considering he found a large man clutching a Bernese Mountain Dog on his lawn. I explained that this was Sophie, the dog on all the Lost Dog posters in the area, and immediately he knew what I was talking about. He called out to the people crashing about the woods, and soon Brian and Mike were there to assist. Eventually, someone with a radio came, and word went out to the whole team that we had caught her. I wasn’t about to let go of her, no matter what, so the others secured her while I adjusted my grip on Sophie and stood up. I had lost my glasses in the landscaping somewhere, but I would come back for them later. I carried her down the hill in the dark, back toward the camp. The stars were out, a clear sky on a warm summer night. Carrying Sophie home was the best feeling. It was the result of weeks of planning and work, but it also meant she was saved, safe. Mike, her owner, wanted to carry her the rest of the way, but I was reluctant to give her up because she felt so nice in my arms. I did hand her over to him. He and his wife Jennifer collapsed on the floor of the cabin with Sophie. She seemed so calm and sweet, relaxed, nothing like the frightened, feral dog we had been watching for weeks.
It was mostly luck that I caught Sophie. I just happened to get the idea of sneaking through people’s yards, and Sophie just happened to run into a fence. It could easily have turned out differently, with Sophie escaping that night and being even harder to catch after that. The delay in starting was mostly my fault because I went out too early instead of meeting up with my team. If I had staged with them according to plan, I would have had the ACO, the vet, and the radio handler with me when the twig snapped. We might have caught her sooner. Or maybe we would have gone after her sooner, before the twig snapped. Anyway, it could easily have turned out badly that night, and it would have been partially, maybe mostly, my fault. Because of a fluke, and also because of my intense desire to help her, I caught Sophie, making it one of the best moments of my life. That moment sustains me through all the difficult times, when the dog or the cat isn’t found right away, when my clients are devastated, crying, distraught. Had things gone just a little differently, I might not have caught Sophie, and that night would have been terrible, crushing, a bad end to weeks of planning. I may or may not have stuck with the training. Because of that success with Sophie, I finished the classroom training, finished the 18 months of field training with Kelsy, and volunteered for Missing Pet Partnership for four years before starting my own business to help lost pets. I’m glad things turned out as they did, and I am grateful to Sophie for letting me catch her that night.
That should be the end of Sophie’s story, and they should have lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, a gate was not completely latched at Sophie’s home, and she got out again a few months after we had captured her. It is a pattern I've seen: dogs that are lost and found once are often lost again. Kelsy was not yet fully trained to follow the scents of lost dogs, and I had been advised not to work her on an actual cases until she was done with training because it could undo her training and ultimately make her less effective as a search dog. I couldn’t not do anything, and when I learned that Sophie had escaped, I started Kelsy on her scent trail within hours of the escape. Kelsy tried, but she did not follow the scent trail successfully. She followed it in a loop back to Sophie’s home, which is probably what Sophie did, but we couldn’t pin down the last trail she took. Because of large neon posters, again, Sophie was located in a wooded ravine, very similar to the one she lived in for seven weeks in the summer. This ravine was in Bow Lake Park, about three blocks from her home. This park, between SeaTac Airport and I-5, ran down the hill behind some homes and ended in a deep ravine right up against the freeway.
Not as many volunteers could devote their time to Sophie this time around. About five or six of us worked to recover her. Her owner, Mike, would stop by every evening and leave her food, just like he had been doing at the other ravine in the summer. After several weeks, it got to the point where Sophie would hear Mike’s truck coming, and be there ready to get her dinner. Mike could get within ten feet of his dog, but all he could do was to feed her and then go home. He knew that running after her wouldn’t work. We started coming up with plans to trap her again, but Mike and Sophie settled into a routine where he brought dinner to his dog in the woods. Mike would joke that had a dog who just happened to live in a ravine.
One of the many things Sophie taught us about catching a dog is that you can’t use the same trick twice. Sophie recognized a standard humane trap, and she recognized the net, so she wasn’t going to fall for any of those tricks. We learned of a different kind of trap that was a spring-loaded snare. A dog bites onto a lure and pulls, and the spring-loaded metal cable shoots over the dog’s head. When she tries to get away from it, it tightens up, and the dog is trapped. This snare is used in many other states by animal control officers, with a pretty high success rate. The key is that you have to follow the instructions exactly. You have to set the metal cable loop to just the right size. The snare needs to be anchored properly. It needs to be somewhat camouflaged so the dog isn’t wary of it. You need to set the trap between obstacles so the dog can only approach the trap from the front, not the sides. I should have set the trap myself, but another volunteer set it up, not quite right. Sophie took the bait, and triggered the snare, but she had approached from the side, so the snare just glanced off her head instead of going over it. This trap would have worked, but we would never get another chance to use it with Sophie. I spent hundreds of hours over many months devising new traps for Sophie. I set up several of them, but Sophie wouldn’t go anywhere near them. Finally, it dawned on me that she could smell my scent at the site of the trap. She associated my scent with all the previous trapping attempts. She didn’t need to recognize the traps any more. She just needed to recognize my scent to know it was a trap. At that point, I had to step away from the efforts to catch Sophie. We knew where she was, and she came to eat dinner every night. I would stop by the ravine sometimes just in hopes of catching a glimpse of her in the distance, but I was forced to give up my active role of trying to catch her.
Sophie lived in that ravine for nine months. Eventually, another rescue group came forward to lead the recovery effort. Because they had new people with new smells, they could try new trapping schemes without tipping her off with scent. They set up a trap near someone’s back yard using temporary fencing to corral her into a fenced area. On the day they deployed the trap, Sophie was very skinny and weak. She basically crawled into the enclosure and gave up. She couldn’t run any more. I was elated to learn that they caught her, but then, the next day, I was crushed to learn that they had chosen to euthanize her. She had intestinal parasites, which led to rapid weight loss. Her internal organs shifted and collapsed. I don’t know all the details. I got the impression that the choice to euthanize her was partially a financial decision because the surgery was going to be expensive. Had I been informed, I would have adopted Sophie and paid for the surgery, however much it cost. I was never given the option, as I was only informed after it was too late. Perhaps nothing could have been done. I will never know.
I felt like giving up at that point. Someone even told me, rather unfairly, I thought, that Sophie died because I didn’t do enough to save her. It’s true, I did so many things, investing hundreds of volunteer hours to save this one dog, but I didn’t do quite enough. As some time went by, I didn’t feel so sad about Sophie, and I haven’t really thought about quitting this work since then. For one thing, Sophie lost her life while teaching me all of these things about what will work to catch a dog and what won’t work. She also taught me that I won’t save them all, that there will be horrible, tragic losses. After the hard lessons Sophie taught me, it would be a terrible waste to not use that knowledge to help others. I will always have that moment when I caught Sophie because of a fluke on a warm summer night under the stars. I can still feel her in my arms, and she keeps me going when things seem bleak.