An Animal Story with a Happy Ending
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Every night before bed, I check in with all the beating hearts in the household and I don't feel right about the world unless everyone is present and accounted for. Somehow, on the night of September 16, I managed to fall down on the job, and when Sean went to feed the cat army in the morning before going to work, he couldn't find Blue. This was alarming because Blue never misses a meal. We called and called and looked and looked, inside outside upside down, all over the house and around it. Nope. Nothing. That day and night, we scoured the house and yard. We walked all over the neighborhood, calling his name. No Blue.
Because I always need a story to keep myself from banging against the hard wall of why, I made one up. Morgan, the oldest of our three cats, came to us from the street and insisted on adhering to an indoor/outdoor lifestyle. The eternal adolescent, Skeeter, followed suit and underscored his emancipation by repeatedly chewing a cat flap into the back screen door (if cats had fingers, he'd shoot us the bird every day). Blue, our sweet, soft, shy middle cat, had spent about half of his eight years in gradual blossom: learning to let kids pet him; learning not to dematerialize when visitors came to the house; hanging back but intrigued as the other cats went outdoors; and finally, tiptoeing into the backyard to drink in the smell of damp earth and rocketing back when a chicken squawked too close. The night he went missing, I'd ushered him in off the deck, where Sean was grilling, and I'd assumed after Skeeter banged through the back screen that everyone was in; then I'd closed the door. Blue must have been out with Skeeter. And I must have shut Blue out.
Over the next days, with help from friends, we posted flyers on nearly every telephone pole and in every mailbox in our immediate vicinity. We knocked on doors and talked to neighbors and mail carriers and called the shelters and vets and set up a humane trap that got turned on its side (fucker raccoons) and then resoundingly ignored. We walked the adjacent neighborhoods in either direction, listening for the bell on Blue's collar. We posted on Facebook and in Nextdoor, as did friends. We took every suggestion and followed up on every sighting, a steady flow of goodwill that kept us going. But Blue's disappearance was awful, in some ways even worse than my dad's death. The self-recrimination. The not knowing. The abruptness. His cat toys everywhere, forlorn. I had trouble even being home with the omnipresence of his absence. Reed cried into his pillow at bedtime, when the ache was most palpable. I sobbed into my arms on the dashboard after draping Blue's red blanket over the trap. Sitting on the deck at night, Sean and I swapped Blue stories and tried in vain to look the worst in the eye.
Enter Kelly Brach of Professional Pet Trackers and her team of working dogs.
It was via Nextdoor that I heard of Kelly Brach. She was booked--she's one of only two lost-pet trackers on Long Island, and the other person doesn't handle cats--but she told me to check back later in the week, and when I called, she said she could come on Saturday morning. She asked if there was any place or object in the house belonging exclusively to Blue from which the search dog could glean his scent. I confessed that there were three humans, two other cats, a dog, a dove, and eight chickens in our family. "But the chickens are outside, right?" she asked. Well, sort of--one hen recently spent a couple of days in the house, recuperating from heatstroke.
NO PROBLEM, Kelly said. Her amazing dogs could do something called scent elimination, like when a human learns the smell of garlic salt and onion salt and then can tell the difference. All we needed to do was crate Skeeter and Morgan and leash Jasper so her dog could smell them individually, and we'd go from there.
Kelly and her team at play.
I liked Kelly's manner, straightforward, sympathetic, nonjudgmental, and hopeful; she'd been in my shoes years earlier, when her beloved cat Tony went missing for three weeks. That was how she learned there was such a thing as lost-pet tracking, and Tony's return became her inspiration for pursuing it as a career. Though Blue had been gone a week at this point, cats are natural survivors, she explained, and can live for weeks on small prey, even bugs. And the big rainstorm in the forecast that I was worried about? Would actually improve our chances of finding him. Contrary to what I'd assumed, water acts as an excellent conduit for scent.
When Kelly arrived at 7 a.m. on Saturday in her silver Ford Explorer custom-outfitted with a built-in dog crate, I felt like the cavalry had arrived. Moving briskly, wearing a black tee, tan work pants tucked into knee-high lace-up combat boots, and a black cap over her blond pigtails, Kelly initially left her dog in the vehicle to come slapstick-chase our cats into crates. After we had two growling, yowling cat carriers and Jasper on a leash, Kelly went out to get her dog.
And what a dog! Even if Sonja hadn't been wearing her "Working Dog, Do Not Pet" vest, I would have given her a respectful distance. She was on duty from the minute she hopped out of the SUV. Kelly allowed Sonja to smell Skeeter, Morgan, and Jasper and told her each time, "The other one." And then Kelly opened the plastic bag containing Blue's favorite toys--the ones I hadn't been able to look at so I'd stowed them in a drawer before realizing their value as the only objects belonging solely to Blue. Sonja thrust her nose deep in the toys and in seconds was ready to go.
She moved fast. After a few minutes of scanning the house, she asked to head outside. Kelly held her loosely on a long lead, and we followed as the dog went out our back gate, into and out of a neighbor's yard, between the houses, and paused briefly to take a businesslike dump ("Do you really have to do that right now?" Kelly asked her, and then, upon seeing the dinosaur-size deposit, "You're nasty!"). Then it was on to the neighborhood steps, through another neighbor's gate, and down a hill. "That's why she kept looking up in the house!" Kelly observed: our area is hilly, and the wind we'd had two days earlier would have dispersed the scent at varying levels.
That didn't daunt Sonja. She trotted on, sometimes breaking into an eager lope that required us to jog, and once asking to scramble under bushes that a cat and a dog would have no trouble navigating but humans needed to find a way around. Her entire affect was: Please hurry! We are doing serious business! "It's okay, mama," Kelly reassured her. "I'll get you there. I promise."
After several moments of maneuvering past rocks and plantings and walls, we arrived at Glenna Little Trail, one street over from our neighborhood, and Sonja led us up the street to a vacant house. She checked one side of the house and the other, then took us up the steep ivy-covered hill behind it. She gave a few short whines: "She squeaks when she's close," Kelly said, and pulled out a device that resembled a little flashlight. "We're going to try something different." She scrutinized the hillside with it and showed me what the view looked like: "That's Sonja," she said of the dog-shaped rainbow blob, "and remember, it's not X-ray vision." It was a handheld thermal detector, and it indicated body heat. While I aimed it at the ivy and underneath a deck farther up the hill, Sonja and Kelly continued along the tree line. In the quiet, I realized I'd lost them, and noted wryly to myself that I now needed a tracker for my tracker.
Fortunately, I could telephone Kelly, and she talked me to their location two doors down. As I neared, I saw that Sonja was sitting down for the first time since she'd begun to track. Kelly told me that Blue was in all likelihood very near, "maybe even watching us." She indicated the deck up the hill, the playhouse down the hill. There were all kinds of hidey-holes for a cat. "He's not going to come out with us here," she said, "so we're going to help him get brave."
But first, Sonja's reward for a job well done: a red ball. And with the bestowal of that ball, the tireless worker clocked out and allowed herself to play.
Sonja off duty.
Back at the house, it was the humans' turn. "Who is Blue most likely to respond to?" Kelly asked me. I said, "Well, he's opened up a lot, but traditionally, it's been me." Kelly said, "Okay, then. We're going to make a 'Beth tea.' We'll need a gallon water bottle and whatever you slept in last night." I didn't have any water bottles, but again, NO PROBLEM: Kelly crushes water bottles down ("takes up less space," she said) and keeps spares in her car. "And now we need a piece of clothing that smells like you." I produced the shirt I'd worked out in the day before, and she instructed me to cut it into strips that would fit in the water bottles, then to add very warm water, shake, and voilà: liquid eau de Beth. We then took the most direct route to the spot where Sonja had alerted, and we dripped a trail back home, "to make him show his face," Kelly said. The more I walked that route, the stronger my scent would be, and hanging worn clothing around the yard would help, too.
Once we were back outside our house, I asked, "Can I pet Sonja now?" and Kelly said, "Oh, yes!" and I sat down on the side steps to thank that gorgeous dog for being such a smart hard worker, and she stuck her head under my arm and let me rub her sides, and then it was time for them to go, and I would be on my own--but not quite, because as Kelly reminded me, "We're married until we find Blue, or until we get divorced." She and Sonja would be back on Wednesday for a recheck. "Oh," Kelly added before she left, "and this is important: if or when you see Blue, don't go to him, because he'll probably run from you. Make yourself as small as possible and don't make direct eye contact--it's threatening to an animal--and just wait. He'll come to you."
I felt my attention slipping away even as she spoke, my hope ebbing, reality returning. Kelly had said earlier that animals often come back right after tracking, but it could also take a few days. I had decided to hire her not just because she came highly recommended, and not just because we desperately needed the help, but also to assure myself that I was doing everything I could to bring Blue home. Doing helped. But now I had to wait. And I am so very, very bad at waiting.
Fortunately, I had plenty of work to keep me busy, so when Sean left to take Reed to a birthday party, I went up to my office to work. It was a pretty day, so I had the window open, listening to the chickens flap and murmur contentedly to themselves in the backyard.
And then I heard a bell. The collar bell that all the cats wore. A million times over the last few days, I'd thought I was hearing it, but it was just Morgan or Skeeter going about cat business in the house, or the neighbor's car keys, or my overactive imagination. Still . . . it was worth checking. Skeeter was asleep in Reed's room and Morgan was asleep on the sofa, and I was ready for a break from the computer anyway, so I told myself I'd walk another scent trail for Blue, pointedly not allowing the flexion of hope. I slammed out the screen door, walked up the neighborhood steps, opened the chain-link gate to the neighbor's yard, and--holy fucking shit. There he was. Sitting bolt upright on the rocks alongside the neighbor's expansive porch steps.
Kelly's voice in my ear, Make yourself small, and I immediately dropped cross-legged on the sidewalk, Don't make eye contact, sneaking glances to see if it was the gray indoor cat whose grounds I was trespassing on because this cat didn't look exactly like Blue and yet it was Blue, my Blue kitty, clipped left ear and collar, I wanted to yell I wanted to run toward him I wanted to call Sean and Reed and tell them Blue was right here in front of me I even wanted to know what time it was, Sean's right, I'm addicted to my phone, and I said his name once, softly, Bluuuuuuue, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his gaze snap to me and then he settled down to a wary crouch, I will wait, I will wait, I am waiting, a slight breeze and distant birdcalls, please nobody come past and scare him, please come, Blue, and then he was walking MEOW Blue! toward MEOW Blue! me MEOW Blue! and then he was in my arms and I couldn't help it, I burst out with a yelp BLUE! in his ear and he briefly struggled, but I was not letting go, not for anything.
Blue Kitty, home.
Enzo's effortless hang time.
Enzo's other kind of hang time.
Dino (right) with his overachiever mama, Maggie.
Magnificent Maggie (Sonja's daughter).
We love you, Sonja, goodest girl.
And to the exceptional human who guides these dogs--thank you for our cat. And for righting our world.