Chapter 7: Stewart
Stewart is an orange cat who lives in Poulsbo with two other cats. He is shy, mostly an indoor cat, let out occasionally under careful supervision. Thirteen years old, his hyperthyroid disease requires him to take medicine daily to prevent his heart from racing at up to 220 beats per minute. On Sunday, June 16th, 2013, Stewart vanished from the yard. He was there one moment, and when his human, Debbie, was distracted for a few minutes, Stewart disappeared. He may have been disoriented, or he may have been chased by a bully cat. Debbie looked in the usual places, where Stewart had sneaked to a few times in the past ten years, but she couldn’t find him.
By the time Debbie called me on Monday, she was pretty sure Stewart had died, because of a coyote or a car or something, but she wanted me to help find his remains. I assured her that Stewart was probably still alive and hiding nearby, based on statistics from hundreds of cases. Fewer than five percent of pets are found deceased and over 70% are found alive, according to records from the past seven years. My dogs Komu and Kelsy have found remains of deceased pets at least 23 times in the past, so we would probably be able to discover Stewart’s remains if he was one of the unlucky few.
The dogs and I arrived at 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon, as the day was heating up. We would have preferred to search in the cool of early morning, but previous commitments prevented that. Normally, I just bring Komu the Cat Finder on cat searches, but on this day I also brought Kelsy. Mostly she searches for dogs, but she is technically a scent trailing dog, by training. I seldom use her for missing cat cases because, for one thing, cats are usually lost in their home territories and their most recent trails would be lost among all the previous trails around their homes. Also, cats tend to move a little way, then hide and create a scent pool. What you are left with is a series of overlapping scent pools, not the kind of point A to point B trail Kelsy is trained to follow. Because Stewart was mostly an indoor cat, and because the scent trail was less than 48 hours old, I decided to give Kelsy a shot at the scent article to see if we could establish a direction of travel. Then Komu would take over and work that area in a systematic pattern, finding any cat he could find.
In her harness and ready to work, Kelsy smelled some fur Stewart had left on a cushion, and she quickly led us into the woods south of the house, then across the street to the east and north. Stewart had never crossed the street during his previous escapes, and he was frightened of cars, so this direction of travel was not what we had been expecting. I speculated that he had been pushed that way by the tough Siamese roaming the neighborhood. Kelsy searched around a neighboring house and in the woods, but the trail looped around on itself, leading no particular direction. Kelsy showed signs of being too hot after just an hour of work. I took her back to the car in the shade. It’s not healthy or comfortable to work the dogs in warm, dry weather. It is also ineffective because they can’t use their noses as well when they have to pant to stay cool.
I gave Kelsy some water and put her in the cool car under the shade of the tall firs, and brought Komu out. We had originally planned to work him exclusively on the west side of the road, which was the area of highest probability, but based on Kelsy’s direction of travel, I started him on the east side of the road. Komu worked around the house and through the woods, checking under sheds and decks, sniffing at hollows in stumps. After about ninety minutes, Komu alerted on a patch of ferns, pulling hard. All I could see was ferns, not a cat. Komu became more excited, pulled hard against the leash, and nosed at the fern. An orange cat popped out! It was Stewart. At first, he headed toward home, but before he got to the road, he looped back and headed away from home. I looked around for Debbie, who had been shadowing me for two and a half hours, but she had fallen behind for a moment. By the time she caught up, Stewart was out of sight again.
On the one hand, I was elated that we had found Stewart. Kelsy, Komu, and I had teamed up to accomplish what none of us could have achieved without the others. That moment when we found Stewart was what we had trained for all these years. These victories don’t happen as often as I would like, and I wanted to celebrate with Komu. But then, just as quickly as we had found him, Stewart was hidden again in a new spot. I took Komu back to the car, so he wouldn’t frighten Stewart any more than he had. Anyway, Komu was too hot and needed to cool off. We searched the area visually for half an hour, not finding Stewart. Then I started Kelsy on the fresh scent trail, but she could not pinpoint him.
The day had reached 70 degrees, so I took a break for lunch and cooled the dogs in the air-conditioning of the car for a couple of hours, waiting for some promised clouds to roll in. We went back and searched for two more hours and did not find Stewart. Debbie was depressed that she had missed her chance to catch Stewart. I tried to reassure her, explaining that we knew much more than before we started. We knew he was alive, we knew he was seeking cover, and we knew the general area where he was likely hiding, which was not an area Debbie would have searched before Kelsy and Komu did their work. Debbie set up two humane traps, and checked the area often over the next 36 hours.
I was set to bring the dogs out again on Thursday, when cooler, showery weather would help the dogs work more effectively and safely. Before we could leave for Poulsbo that morning, I got the call from Debbie that she found Stewart not far from where Komu had found him on Tuesday. She found him at four in the morning. He was disoriented and weak because he hadn’t had his medication since Sunday, but he was alive and expected to recover.
I had been elated when Komu found Stewart, and then crushed when we lost him again, not knowing for certain that we would find him again. When I got the call that Stewart was home, I could once again be happy and proud of the excellent work my dogs had done. The three of us combined our skills in a unique way to accomplish something we couldn’t do individually. I was very happy with my dogs, happy for Stewart and Debbie, and happy to go back to sleep for another hour.
People often ask me, if Komu finds the cat, what happens then? It is a risk that the cat can be spooked and run off. When Komu has found the cat alive, one of three things has happened, approximately in equal measure. The cat may be trapped in a tight spot, like under a shed or in a crawlspace, and catching the cat is just a matter of time, patience, and strategy. The second possibility is that the cat can have the opportunity to run, but he doesn't because he is too panicked to move, like Guinness in the first chapter. It is a common behavior for cats to hold perfectly still when a threat approaches. Dogs and predators have excellent vision when things move, but a dog cannot see a cookie on the carpet if he is looking right at it, sometimes, because it is not moving. Instead, the dog will track down the fallen cookie by scent. Cats instinctively know they are less likely to be detected if they don't move. The third scenario we have seen with cats found by Komu is that they bolt. In all those cases where we found the cat but it ran away, we found the cat again later. It is a risk that Komu could find the cat, flush him out of his hiding spot, and then we never find the cat again. It hasn't happened yet, but it is a risk. We weigh that risk against the benefits of locating the cat.
Another issue that Stewart's case illustrated is that panic and grief can overwhelm a pet owner to the point of incapacitation. Debbie was certain Stewart had died, and she blamed her self. Although she did search for Stewart before I brought the dogs out, she did not search as effectively as she might have if she had had hope that Stewart was alive. Statistically, it is unlikely that your lost pet has died. Certainly, it can happen, but I would put the odds at less than 10%. According to my records, a lost pet has only died 5% of the time, but I never learn the outcome in about 30% of cases. Assuming those unknown cases are resolved in the same patterns as the known cases, it is just very unlikely that your lost pet has died. However, it is a common assumption with grief-stricken pet owners, and people often say they just want me to bring out my search dogs to find the body. If we could get better data out to pet owners, it would greatly boost the numbers of pets returned home because fewer people would be paralyzed by panic and grief. One cat owner I tried to help was so distraught that she totaled her car while distracted, and she was unable to work due to a total lack of concentration. I came out and tried to work the search dog, but she ended up asking me to leave because she simply could not function, and needed to abandon the search effort. This is not uncommon, and it is especially unfortunate because it is based on the false assumption that a lost pet is probably dead.
One thing I want to state explicitly, even though it has been implicit in everything I've said about the data I have collected over the years: although I have experience in over three thousand lost pet cases, which is far more than anyone else I know, that is still a tiny portion of the fifty million pets that went missing during the time that I collected that data. Further, my numbers are probably skewed because the people who seek my help are a self-selected population of those who are highly motivated to find their pets. So, it is possible the percentages I give in this book would change as I gather more data. According to the data I have personally collected, there is less than a ten percent chance your lost pet has died. Even if I had hard data from every lost pet in the United States, I don't think that number would rise above ten percent, knowing what I know about shelters, rescues, and available statistics on lost pets. It is possible that the odds of your lost pet having died are slightly higher than I'm stating. I intend for this book to be a "living document" that will be updated as I learn more, so I might revise these statistics in the future. Whatever the actual odds are that your lost pet has died, it is still one of the least likely scenarios, and jumping to that conclusion right from the start is not helpful to your search effort or your mental health.