This piece was first published in National Post in March 2007. Real-life pet detective Carl Washington was so funny I remember cry-laughing throughout our conversation.
When a nine-month-old lap dog named Moby went missing from an off leash park in Calgary last November, her owners quickly slapped up “missing” posters to help bring home the Madagascar-imported Coton de Tulear.
But in the 10 icy days during which the Kraminskys were separated from their beloved pooch, the family also hired an animal search and rescue team, sought the advice of animal behaviourists and paid for the insights of animal psychics.
“What are the alternatives? You’re going to sit around and do what?” said Ellen Kraminsky.
The family’s efforts to find Moby — which cost up to $900, involved dozens of people and garnered media attention — attest to the extravagant resources that pet owners will dedicate to finding pets whom they identify as an integral part of the family unit.
This modern notion of pet-centricity, combined with an abiding love of animals, is what inspired Vicky Vaughan, a 42-yearold office clerk in Nova Scotia, to take up a trade as a certified pet detective — or, to use the title she prefers, a missing animal response technician.
She was watching a TV show called Dogs With Jobs when she began to wonder how she might manage without her beloved cats.
“I know that they’re microchipped, but the microchip won’t trace them,” she said. “So I got on the Internet to see if there were any certified Canadian pet detectives and there weren’t, so I was sitting at my desk thinking, ‘You know, I could become one.’ ”
Vaughan soon collected a nine-month-old beagle named Dakota from a Dartmouth, N.S., animal shelter and attended a pet detective training session with Pet Hunters International.
“When I mention I am a missing animal response technician or, as people like to call it, a pet detective, I get a tremendous amount of interest,” she said in a recent interview.
Before Vaughan started advertising, her pet detective skills were solicited on at least five occasions, allowing her to help crack some missing cat cases.
“One of the problems with lost pets, particularly with lost cats, is that people give up too soon because cats will naturally go and hide,” she said.
“Just like you profile a missing person, you profile a missing pet,” she said, explaining the behavioural tracking tools of her trade.
“I would want to know the temperament of the cat. Is the cat the type of cat that comes to company when they come in the house or do they typically run off ? … If it’s an outdoor-access cat, were there any variables that they know of that frightened the cat out of its territory?”
The pet profiling method is one advocated by American pet detective Carl Washington, based in Augusta, Ga.
After 15 years searching for lost dogs, cats, snakes, pigs and turtles, he said he has honed his skills with the help of three hound dogs, night-vision goggles, heat-seeking lasers, a magnifying glass and natural intuition.
The dogs’ profound sense of smell and inherent detective skills make them the ideal tool, he said. Washington insists on a personal assessment of a missing animal before he commits to a case.
“This is going to sound spooky, but it’s not. If you e-mail me a picture of the dog’s or cats’ eyes then I can read things in the dog’s eyes. I compare that to what you tell me about the dog. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to you to hang up on me,” he said in a phone interview.
“They’ve got this type of gleam. Are they promiscuous, or crazy or timid? It’s in the eyes.”
With the speed of his Jack Russell terrier Rocky, and the impressive scent perception of his miniature mixed terrier Gizmo, Washington said he has covered the United States and has even been invited to Canada.
He imparts much of his success to the determination of his poodle, Coco: “Cops don’t want to be seen with them, but they’re a lot smarter than Labs and German shepherds and stuff, just as good as a bloodhound, probably better.”
Washington charges clients about US$100 for a profile and assessment, and estimates the odds of pet recovery. But, he said, he is not in business for the money.
“It’s sort of like a calling from God, but then it’s like a trick, too, because these people call you and you’re the only one that can help them.”
“They call you back and they call you back and they plead with you and now you find yourself sliding all the way across the country to help somebody,” said Washington.
Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the pet-human bond, warned that the same devotion that inspires pet owners to recover their animals could also make them vulnerable to those who might prey on them.
“With a picture of the dog and your credit card number they give you a prognostication. … Obviously in the ESP camp it’s all bunk-o, but in the other instance there are probably people who are really trying to do the job–a few of them have fairly reasonable strategies,” he said.
“How extravagant you become in part has to do with how much money you have to become extravagant.”
And even in those cases where there is money to spend, the cheapest methods of all may win out.
Such was the case with Moby’s rescue, where the dog was quivering in a barn on the outskirts of the city — having survived a -40 C cold snap in only a pink wool dog coat — when a boy recognized her from the posters.
None of that has deterred Kraminsky: “We treat [our pets] very much as a member of the family. … You are supposed to feel a sense of loss and as a responsibility to your pet, you owe it to them to do everything you can to bring them safely home, and I think you owe it to your children to teach them that that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Vaughan, the missing animal response technician, agrees: “People say, it’s only a dog, get over it. But love is love. If you love your dog, you love your dog.”