The Definitive Guide to Finding Missing Pets!
::: Why I do What I do
America’s First Pet Detective:
How I Became Sherlock Bones
SINCE I'M SO OFTEN ASKED how I happened to become a pet detective, I wish I could say it was due to my lifelong involvement with animals or the result of careful career planning. The truth of the matter, however, is that up to that point, I had only had one pet in my life -- and I didn't get him until I was over thirty. And as for careful career planning, my metamorphosis into Sherlock Bones has felt more like Toad's wild ride than anything else. I suppose you could say it all started one afternoon thirty years ago in the sauna at the Oakland Athletic Club, where I happened to spot an ad in the paper offering $1,000 for the return of a Chihuahua. But to understand the power of that ad to turn my life around -- especially since I never even managed to reach the owner let alone find the dog -- you'd have to know why I was in the sauna in the first place.
The simplest explanation is that I was unemployed, but unemployed with a difference, at least for me. After a lifetime of false starts that included dropping out of high school to join the Marines and then trying my hand at one job after another, I'd just turned my back on my first job triumph: four successful years as an insurance salesman. At last I'd gotten all the goodies I thought were measures of success: a lovely girlfriend, nice clothes, a racy sports car, and an elegant houseboat moored in an estuary of San Francisco Bay. But the job was killing me. I hated talking to people about dying, I hated the paperwork, I hated the office politics. Perhaps only another underachiever can appreciate how hard it is to give up the first good thing you've ever had going, no matter how much you hate it. Of course, by the time I bit the bullet, things weren't all that good anymore. My girlfriend and I were going through the slow process of breaking up, my sales were falling off, and I had eaten myself into being overweight and in general bad health. "If you don't make some changes in your life now," my doctor said, "you might not be around to make them later."
The sauna was part of my program to get myself back in shape, in every sense of the word. Thanks to a couple of big commissions, I had some time to research the job market and find something that really fit me. I traded my sports car in for a used VW van, moved into a modest apartment, and went on a diet. I spent my mornings exploring new careers and my afternoons working out at the gym. I read books. I meditated. I prayed. I took tests. I visited employment agencies. This flurry of organized activity whittled away at my waistline but to my dismay, it produced very little in terms of a job.
At each employment agency, a dismal scenario repeated itself. A counselor would take a look at my sketchy education and scattered work experience and pull out the same set of jobs. “Do you want a truck route selling salami to grocery stores? No? Well, then, how about cleaning windows? Oh, you want something unique,” he (or, more frequently, she) would say with thinly veiled sarcasm, “something off the beaten track?”
"But Mr. Keane," one woman told me, tapping my folder with her pencil, "frankly, there isn't a lot here for me to work with. If I were you, I'd reconsider my decision to leave the insurance business."
Enter Paco, my first, and up until then, only pet. As an antidote to those daily doses of rejection, I had started going to the movies. One of them was Serpico. As you may remember, Serpico had an Old English sheepdog he came home to after fighting corruption in the New York City police department. That's just what I needed, I decided -- a loyal dog to befriend me in my battles against the world. I'd call him Paco, the nickname Serpico took when he became an undercover cop, and we'd take long walks on the beach together. In the evenings we'd sit before a roaring fire, me with a good book, Paco snoozing on the hearth. It was a wild fantasy -- I didn't even have a fireplace and could ill afford to buy an expensive pedigreed dog -- but I couldn't get it out of my head.
I made some inquiries and discovered a kennel in Sacramento with some sheepdog puppies for sale, but even as I made the long drive to the kennel I had no real intention, or so I told myself, of getting a dog. When I was growing up in the Archie Bunker section of Queens, New York, pets were creatures other families had. Our family didn't engage in many open displays of affection, even among ourselves, and to waste them on a pet was deemed rank weakness. Once, when I was about six years old, my brother and I set up a cage behind some bushes in our backyard and ran a secret hostel for some cats we found following the neighborhood garbage truck. (It never occurred to me then that cats belonged to people.) But as soon as my father found our cage full of cats, he closed down the operation.
That was the sum total of my experience as a pet owner, but when I got to the kennel and saw that little bundle of black and white fur rolling around on the front lawn, I had to have it. In a matter of minutes, I was the proud parent of a ten-week-old Old English sheepdog, and my whole life took a turn for the better. Feeding, walking, and brushing Paco made me feel more like a mother hen than the Jack London character I had fantasized, but it took my mind off my troubles. Even as a puppy, his presence had a soothing effect on me; he helped fill the spaces in my single life that creeping panic had occupied before. I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, but I suppose what happened is that I fell in love a little, and maybe a lot.
Even so, I wasn't yet aware of the plight of missing animals. My interest in the ad in the sauna had nothing to do with the Chihuahua's welfare. I thought it would be a quick way to make some money and perhaps even the beginning of a career as a pet bounty hunter. I wasn't getting very far with my standard job-hunting efforts, so why not give this a try? After I showered and dressed, I called the number several times. There was no answer. That's funny, I thought, they care enough to offer a big reward, but not enough to sit by the phone or invest in an answering machine. By this time the idea was beginning to intrigue me, though, so I called another number in an ad that offered an unspecified reward for the return of a white toy poodle lost in San Francisco. A man answered.
"Hello," I said. "I see in the paper you have lost your dog, and I, uh, my name is John Keane and I have a business helping people find missing pets."
"Really?" he replied. "That's odd. I've never heard of such a thing.""Oh yes," I said with what I hoped was assurance. "And I'm calling to see if you'd like some help."
There was a pause. "What do you charge for this service?" he asked warily.
I hadn't given that one blessed thought. "Charge? Well, I don't charge anything if I don't find it," I ad-libbed, "and if I do… how does fifty dollars sound to you?"
It sounded fine. He had no time to look for the dog, and his wife and kids were driving him crazy. He gave me a description, told me where it had been lost, and we hung up. I was in business! Good-bye, salami truck! Hello, adventure! I swung by my girlfriend's apartment, and the two of us sped off across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.
Not having the slightest idea of what to do, we started at the scene of the crime, a doughnut shop on a busy street where the man's daughter had left the dog while she went inside. There we learned that a woman had come into the shop carrying a white poodle, claiming the dog had almost been hit by a car and wanting to know where its owner was. By this time the little girl had left by a rear door, so the woman said she would take the dog home and place an ad in the paper. She hadn't left her name, no one remembered seeing her before, and she had never placed the ad. We spent four hours looking that afternoon -- talking with people, driving up and down streets, standing on corners and whistling -- but we never found the poodle.
I tried to pretend the whole experience had just been a lark, an entertaining way to kill an afternoon, but underneath my bravado I was sorely disappointed. This was to have been my ticket to an exciting new life. During the next few days I tried to put it out of my mind, but it wouldn't go away. I had been too impatient, I decided. I needed to give myself more time, devise a plan of attack.
That brought up another problem: I didn't know what the hell I was doing. If I was going to be a pet bounty hunter, I had better learn how. On an impulse, I called the Oakland police for advice, but they brushed me off like dandruff. Finding pets was clearly not on their list of priorities, despite all the newspaper photographs I'd seen of burly cops retrieving kittens from trees and window ledges. "Check the pound, buddy," the desk sergeant told me brusquely.
In Oakland, the pound -- or animal shelter, as it is officially known -- happens to be run by the police department. Rather than risk another brush-off, I got in my car and drove there myself. Located in a down-at-the-heels part of town, it was housed in a low, utilitarian building that looked as if it had been hastily erected as a temporary structure sometime during World War ll. I entered a well-lit, official-looking room with a counter that divided the reception area from an office with four desks. The sergeant in charge, fortunately, was not there. In his place was a man I'll call Charlie, a guy in his late thirties who told me he was a supervisor but sometimes went out on the truck as well.
Taking a deep breath, I told him what I wanted to do. "I know it sounds a little strange," I said, "but I think there might be a need for such a service. My problem is I don't know the first thing about missing pets, and I thought you could fill me in."
"Sounds interesting," he said. "Let's go in the back room and talk. It's a good excuse to take a break."
I'll be forever grateful to Charlie. He could have given me the cold shoulder. Many animal shelter people have, especially those who saw me as a threat rather than a help, but not Charlie. He led me into the room that functioned as the sergeant's office and employee lounge.
"Fix yourself a cup of coffee," he said. "I'll be back in a minute."
While I was waiting, I could hear dogs barking from behind another door in the office. I opened it tentatively and found myself in the shelter itself; the room with the cages where the stray animals that had been turned in or picked up were kept. Not sure I was supposed to be there -- suddenly not sure I even wanted to be there -- I took a few steps forward into a cacophony of barking. The fear and anxiety were so strong you could almost touch them. I had an instantaneous impression of a prison, with harsh lighting, cement floors, cages everywhere, and an incredibly high noise level. Wishing I had never come in, I walked past one row of cages. In the first, an old golden retriever was lying in the corner, looking as if he'd given up. Next to him a little terrier was yapping his head off, desperately trying to get my attention. Next a black mongrel, just standing there, slowly wagging his tail. In the corner was a bank of smaller cages full of cats. They appeared to be in shock. Who wouldn't be, I thought, taken off the street, set down in these surroundings, not knowing what was going to happen next? In the last cage was a little puppy, a shepherd-collie mix that couldn't have been more than four months old. I knelt and put my hand against the cage and he licked it greedily.
"I see you've found a friend." It was Charlie.
"Yeah, I guess so," I said, standing up. "Some nice dogs here," I added, too dazed to know what else to say.
"Some of the best," he said, "but you'd better look quick, because most of them will be gone in a few days."
I was having trouble focusing my attention. "You mean, back with their owners, or adopted?" I asked.
Charlie gave me a long look. His face wore the expression of a would-be seducer who discovers at the critical moment that he's got a virgin on his hands. “What I mean," he said after a pause, "is that they'll be gone. Period."
"Oh," I replied lamely, the truth suddenly sinking in. "You mean put to sleep." I looked at the puppy. “But not all of them, right? Like this little puppy...”
"Come on, John," he said evenly, as he led me back to the office. He took one chair, I another. No one else was in the room. "OK," he said finally, "what can I tell you?"
I didn't answer for a moment. What I had just experienced had obliterated the questions I had prepared. "Well, for starters," I began, "I guess I'd like to know how many of the dogs that come in here are, uh, put away."
"Seventy percent." His face betrayed no emotion.
"Seventy percent!" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was prepared to accept a few -- old dogs, sick dogs, street animals -- but seventy percent! That was seven out of every ten animals. "What about the others?" I asked.
"Maybe ten percent get adopted and another twenty percent are picked up by their owners. They're almost always the ones with tags." His voice remained even; be could have been giving a weather report.
"But . . ." I didn't know what to say. I had come here to pick up a few tricks of the trade and had been assaulted with a horror story instead. I could feel my insides churning with feelings I didn't know what to do with. I was angry at the animal shelter, at the pet owners, and, irrationally, at Charlie, sitting there with his cool-as-a-cucumber attitude. Didn't the man have any feelings? Why was he dumping this information on me? What was I supposed to do with it? I didn't know it then, of course, but this anger was to become my constant companion in the weeks and months ahead.
"Hey, John," Charlie said, "if you get in this business, you'd better wise up."
"Yeah, well, that's why I'm here, to…"
"No," he interrupted, "I mean wise up about pet owners. You probably think they're all dedicated animal lovers, right?"
"Well, maybe not all of them, but ... I don't see what you're getting at."
"Look," Charlie said patiently, "we're in the middle of a pet explosion in this country. Everybody and his brother have got one. Take a good look at the sidewalks and you'll see what I mean. The owners get bored or it's too much trouble or they don't keep them in, and they end up here. Lots of people bring their pets here. They turn 'em in like library books. We always say we'll try to find them a home, that's what the people want to hear, but what I told you is the real truth. And by the way, if you quote me, I'll deny it."
"But what about the dogs that are actually lost?" I was thinking of Paco. If he were lost, I'd be haunting the pound, and I was sure most other pet owners would do the same. I wasn't buying Charlie's cynical view of the pet-owning public.
"Some get returned, that's true," he said calmly, ignoring my rising voice. "But you'd be surprised how lazy people are. They'll make a phone call but won't take the time to come down here and check for themselves. If the dog's not wearing tags, we can't make a positive identification over the phone. And if dogs are here more than five days, we put them away."
"That's how long you keep them? Only five days?"
"That's right," he said. "Official policy. As a taxpayer, you ought to be glad. Do you know how much it costs to feed and board animals?"
"And then you kill them." I felt sick to my stomach: at the bureaucracy, at "official policy," at the harmless-sounding euphemisms that hid an awful truth. They said they put animals to sleep, as if they would later wake up.
"Look, pal," Charlie said testily, finally nettled. "You were the one that asked. Don't get on my back. I just work here."
I was to return again to Charlie and learn more from his off-the-record remarks, but I had all I could take for that day. I came to appreciate his need for a hard shell, but I didn't have one. Driving home, I had no room in my head for any high-flying fantasies. Charlie had brought me down with a thud. After what he had told me, I could never again think of finding missing pets as bounty hunting. A missing animal was in real danger, and if what Charlie said was true, the official agency responsible for helping wasn't doing enough. Was this something I really wanted to get involved in? I was looking for something lighter, more fun. I had gotten out of insurance so I wouldn't have to talk about dying any more. But there were those dogs and cats back at the shelter, their lives literally ticking away. Was I going to sit by and do nothing? What could I do, anyway?
What I did, at first, was more research, the results of which put a slightly different slant on what Charlie had told me and, if anything, painted an even bleaker picture. Perhaps it was true that many pet owners were too lazy and unconcerned to look for their pets, but it was also true that the Oakland Animal Shelter was only open during business hours. Granted, it was open Saturdays, but, as I had learned from Charlie, a lot can happen to an animal between Monday and Saturday. I also found out that in the East Bay alone there were at least six official public or private animal shelters; all operating more or less independently, all with slightly different policies and procedures, and all likely way stations for lost or unwanted pets.
I started talking to friends about what I was learning, and they contributed experiences of their own. One woman nearly missed finding her cocker spaniel, even though she visited the pound every day, because it had been locked up in a special quarantine room by mistake. Another man called a private shelter in search of his cat, only to be told that it accepted only those animals surrendered by their owners. When he decided to check the place in person, he found his cat and also the name of the woman who had turned it in. She was sorry, she told him when he phoned her, but she had found his cat and taken it there saying she was its owner because she thought it stood a better chance of finding a good home than if she had turned it over to the city pound. I heard of animals with tags whose owners were assured over the phone that their pets were not in the pound when the truth was someone had incorrectly copied the license numbers into the pound's animal registry. One man told me he hadn't been too worried when he lost his dog, since it had up-to-date tags, but when it hadn't turned up after four days, he went to the pound and retrieved it at the last possible moment, without tags or collar. Some kids, he decided, must have taken off the collar.
I went to the library and did some reading. I found out that Charlie was right: we are in the midst of a pet explosion. "It took us over fifty years to register our first million dogs," said the president of the American Kennel Club, "but since 1970 we have been averaging over one million dogs a year." Back then in 1975, it was estimated that there were over thirty-four million dogs and forty-six million cats in the United States, giving us the highest ratio of pets to people of any country on earth. National studies of the problem talked in terms of cost ($500 million a year for "animal control" programs, much of that going for killing and disposing of unwanted animals), disease (over forty diseases are transmitted to people by pets), and filth (New York's half-million dogs drop an estimated fifty-two tons of feces in public places every day, a state of affairs which produced a city law requiring owners to clean up after their pets). I found that according to one source, Charlie's seventy-percent figure was low: fully ninety percent of the fifteen million animals that passed through shelters and pounds at that time were destroyed, most as a result of having been abandoned or turned in by their owners. And Charlie was not alone in his cynical view of the pet-owning public. One highly placed director of a national animal welfare agency was quoted as saying, "When people tell me they're going to breed a dog so their kids can watch 'the miracle of life,' I invite them over here to watch the miracle of death."
My brain reeled. I read of accusations against the pet-food industry that their advertising fuels an unwanted boom in pets and takes food from the mouths of the poor. I read counterclaims that a market for by-products helps keep down the price of food raised for human consumption. The problem was enormous, far greater than I had ever supposed, and everyone seemed to be pointing the finger of blame somewhere else. This wasn't my cup of tea. Crusading wasn't my style, and I had no interest in becoming one of those professional animal lovers who try to organize the world around animal welfare and whose holier-than-thou attitude never fails to turn me off. The whole affair struck me as too hysterical, too emotional, and too unmanly, if you want to know the truth.
Or was this all some sort of cop-out? Maybe I was just scared of failing, afraid to make a commitment. Back and forth I went, but always there hovered in my mind the specter of that ticking clock at the animal shelter. So I got back on the phone and started calling lost-pet ads. I avoided facing the issue of a long-range commitment. I just wanted to tell owners what their pets might be up against and offer my help. Maybe they weren't aware of the diligence required to track down missing pets or of the slipups that can occur.
I didn't get to first base. Reactions ranged from distrust to out-and-out anger. "Look, buddy," one man said, "I don't know what your game is, but you've got no business preying on people when they're desperate. That's extortion."
With responses like that, I might be back slogging away at the insurance business today, clock or no clock. After all, if it was rejection I was after, I could have gone to the employment agencies; at least they were polite about it. Two events intervened, however, to push me over the edge into the world of animals.
First, I came up with the name Sherlock Bones. Despite the horror stories about the plight of missing pets I'd been bombarded with, I still wasn't through with my fantasy of becoming a pet detective, and one evening the name Sherlock Bones just sort of floated into my consciousness. Without stopping to think, I sketched out a logo and a business card, complete with Paco in the Sherlockian deerstalker hat, which is the same design I use today. There was no effort involved; it was as if the name had simply been waiting offstage for the right time to present itself. It seemed inevitable, a perfect encapsulation of my fantasy, a canine twist on the name of literature's most famous detective.
That night, just before I fell asleep, something else floated into my brain, a piece of my past I had completely forgotten about. I was about four and had gotten myself lost in some undergrowth in a park near our house. It was late on a winter day and the sun was sinking, but just before total panic set in, I spotted Lassie, a neighborhood dog, making her rounds. She came up to me and sniffed my face, and I threw my arms around her neck, never before so glad to see a familiar nose. She gave her tail a couple of wags and started to walk away. I fastened my hand in the fur on her back and hung on as she made her way out of the park and back onto familiar turf. I suppose you could say Lassie was just going home, but as far as I was concerned, she had delivered me to safety.
That did it. The next morning I quit pussyfooting. I had some cards printed, registered the name, took out the proper license, found an answering service, put an ad in the paper, and before I had time for any second thoughts, I was in business. God knows why I thought my luck would be better this time around, but Sherlock Bones had assumed a life of its own, and I was determined to go with it, wherever it took me.
Where it took me, at first, was back to the animal shelters. Thanks to my ads and a couple of short articles about my services in local papers, I gained a degree of legitimacy; enough, at least, to get a few requests for help and over seventy calls from people who had found dogs and cats and wanted me to locate their owners. Without any advance planning, I was becoming an informal clearinghouse. I charged owners of missing pets ten dollars the first week and five dollars a week thereafter. For this fee I'd get a photograph of the missing pet and make daily "pound rounds," trying to match the photos with the pets in the cages. It was slow going. I'd stand paralyzed in front of a cage. Was that yellow dog Pepper or wasn't it? I didn't dare make a mistake, so if I thought there was the slightest chance, I'd call my client and tell him or her to come down and check.
It didn't take me long to realize that this was a job better left to owners, who usually (but not always, as I later learned) can pick out their own pets when they see them. However, even owners can often be amazingly ignorant when it comes to knowledge of their pets' most salient features, including gender. Once I was in the back room at a shelter where a well-dressed matron was having a terrific argument with one of the employees about a cat.
"That's my Jennifer!" she was shouting in a tone of voice I'm sure she rarely used.
"Lady," the man replied patiently, "that there's a male cat."
"It certainly is not!" she retorted. "Don't you think I can recognize my own cat? Just look at that white spot on her nose. Now take her out of the cage this minute."
"Suit yourself," the man replied, rolling his eyes at me. As soon as be opened the cage door, the cat sprang into the woman's arms and held on for dear life. It was obviously her cat.
"You see?" she said triumphantly, scratching Jennifer's ears. "This is Jennifer, my female cat."
The man, outraged at this challenge to his professional skills, lifted the cat's tail and pointed out two round furry appendages, irrefutable evidence of masculinity. "See them things, lady?" he said, enjoying his moment of vindication. "Them's balls. Like I said, this here's a male cat."
The woman, too furious at being proved wrong to speak, took her cat and huffed out. I wouldn't be surprised if she never accepted Jennifer's instant sex change; to some people, all cats are female. One thing was certain, though. If she'd been one of my clients and had given me her description of Jennifer, I'd never have found the animal.
The second event, the one that truly sealed my fate, occurred just when my initial momentum as Sherlock Bones was slowing down. Three weeks into my new career, all I had to show for my efforts was a long list of pets people had picked up, and a growing sense of frustration and hopelessness. Then one Saturday morning, I saw a poster announcing a dog show at the Oakland Coliseum. That's where I should be, I thought, talking to all those owners of pedigreed dogs! They're the ones who could really use my services! The only problem was that the show was scheduled for Sunday, the very next day. When I called the organizer, be told me it was too late to get a booth at the show. He liked the idea, though, and suggested I might want to pass out fliers in the parking lot. Twenty-four hours later, I'd scared up some posters, deputized my brother Bill's seven young sons as Sherlock's official pet posse, and gotten us all to the Coliseum parking lot. While my posse stuck fliers under windshield wipers, I stood at the entrance to catch people as they entered and exited. I had just gotten started when a car wheeled up next to me.
The driver was in a hurry. Rolling down the window, he blurted, "Hey, you haven't seen a greyhound around here, have you? One just got loose from the show, and I've got to find it."
"You're not going to believe this," I said, handing him a flier, "but I happen to be in the business of…"
"OK, thanks anyway," be said, grabbing the poster and driving off.
"Hey, wait a minute!" I shouted, but he was already out of earshot. Damn, I thought, why didn't he let me finish? Maybe I could have helped him.
That evening, having delivered my pet posse back home in time to do their homework, I was sitting in my brother and sister-in-law's living room rehashing the day's events. In the background, a local TV news show was flogging away at a dull weekend: ". . . lost today at the Oakland Coliseum's dog show," I heard the newscaster say.
"What's that guy talking about?" I asked.
"I don't know," my sister-in-law said. "Something about the world's most expensive greyhound."
"Hey!" I shouted. "I met the guy that lost that dog today! I even gave him a flier!"
"No one ever reads those things," my brother replied. Bill has always been one of my greatest supporters, but at that point, even he had a hard time mustering enthusiasm.
"Yeah? Well, who knows?" I said. "I think I'll check my service. Maybe he called."
Sure enough, someone had left a message about a greyhound. I called the number and reached the man in the parking lot, who turned out to be not the dog's owner but its handler. He was from out of town and had to leave in the morning, but the owner was on his back, and he was desperate. We agreed that I'd search the pounds, since that was all I did in those days. He was greatly relieved to have someone helping him.
"Must be some dog," I said. "How much is the world's most expensive greyhound worth, anyway?"
"Let's just say she's a hell of a high-priced dog. I thought I stood a better chance of getting the papers and TV interested if I said she was the most expensive. She sure is slippery, though. God knows where she's gotten to by now."
"Try the parks and cemeteries," I suggested, remembering something I'd read recently. "When lost animals are really scared, they will sometimes hide out in dark, quiet places during the day."
The next morning I hit the pounds with renewed vigor. The fact that I had a famous client helped counteract the attitude many shelter employees took toward my work. (Later on, when I became more effective, they became either more supportive or more hostile, but at the time they looked upon me with benign contempt, the way you might regard a distant relative who had taken up flagpole-sitting.) I didn't see anything resembling a greyhound, though, and by early afternoon when I arrived at the Oakland shelter, I was beginning to get discouraged. My friend Charlie was in the front office reading the newspaper.
"Hey, Sherlock," he called. "I see you're on the greyhound case.
"That's right," I replied. "How did you know?"
"Right here in the paper, buddy. You're hot off the presses."
There it was, an article about the greyhound, with a quote from the handler saying he had retained the services of Sherlock Bones, tracer of missing pets, Oakland's famed pet detective.
"Fantastic!" I shouted. "Don't you think that's fantastic, Charlie? I mean, you helped get me started."
Charlie wasn't about to give me any satisfaction. "Big deal," he said. "Two lines in the paper and you're bouncing off the ceiling. All I have to say, John, is don't forget us little people now that you're a superstar."
But it was a big deal to me. Maybe dubbing me "Oakland's famed pet detective" was a bit much, but it felt good to get some official recognition and acclaim for a crazy idea I had taken from a fantasy and made real.
When I got home later that day, there were messages from newspapers and TV stations that were following the case. Did I have any more news on the greyhound, and by the way, what was it exactly that a pet detective did? In the next few days, a local TV show did a short segment on me, and the following Sunday the San Francisco Examiner ran an article on my business. I talked about how I got started and the long list of homeless pets I had gathered. Maybe, I thought, their owners will read the article and claim their animals.
As things turned out, though, I had no time for missing pets in the next few days. Monday morning my phone started ringing and didn't stop for a week. The wire services had picked up the Examiner story and sent it all over the world, and now everyone wanted to know more about this strange person who called himself Sherlock Bones. Had I said I wanted to get the word out on the plight of missing pets? Had I said I wanted recognition? Well, I got it all right -- from all over the country and overseas as well. Producers of local radio talk shows started calling from Boston, New York, West Virginia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, asking if I would agree to be interviewed by telephone. It was heady stuff indeed. After being dismissed as a crank and a crook, I was suddenly being courted as an expert.
I still managed to make my pound rounds -- no word yet on the greyhound -- but my energies were elsewhere. My life became surreal. At four in the morning the phone would ring. I'd grab my blanket and stagger into the living room, a corner of which served as my office, trying to remember who was calling. Oh, yes, that early morning commuter show in New York. Outside my window it was still the middle of the night; I tried to remember that in New York it was already seven o'clock and people were listening to the radio as they got up and went about their business.
"Just hang on, Sherlock," the announcer would say. "We're not quite ready for you yet."
So I'd shuffle to the kitchen, heat up some coffee, and try to wake up. From the receiver at my ear, I could hear the professionally cheerful sounds of the radio show in progress: ". . . and so it looks like another beautiful day here in Manhattan, with clear skies forecast for the next twenty-four hours. We'll be back in a minute with a man who has a most unusual occupation. But first, this word."
Then the announcer would say, "OK, Sherlock, you’re on in thirty seconds."
I'd gulp some coffee, glance out at the blackness, and try to imagine my words were about to be heard by God knows how many people three thousand miles away. Then I'd be on. I’d say "Good morning, Frank" -- or whatever his name was -- and off I'd go into my spiel. I always wondered what those listeners would have thought if they'd known I was talking to them in my underwear from a pitch-black apartment with a sleepy sheepdog at my feet.
I have no idea where my fling with the media might have taken me had it not been for a man from Boston who called me late one evening at the end of that week. He'd heard me on the radio, he said, and needed my help.
"Glad to oblige," I replied confidently. "What can I do for you?"
"I want you to find my dog, Tippy," he said. "She's gone. ... I don't know how. You see, she sits outside in the mornings, and when I went to get the mail, she was gone." He sounded like an old man.
"But you're in Boston, and I'm in California," I replied. "I'd be glad to give you some suggestions of things to do, but…"
"No, no," he interrupted. "It's you I want. I don't get out much, don't you see, and this neighborhood has changed so much, I don't know anyone any more. I want you to come. Now, I'm willing to pay whatever's fair, if that's what's bothering you. I'm not in the poorhouse yet, you know."
I was nonplussed. I couldn't let him fly me to Boston. I didn't know anything about that city, and besides, I had never actually tracked down a missing animal. To put it bluntly, the world's leading pet detective wasn't worth the price of a bus ticket to Boston, let alone airfare. But the man needed help. What could I tell him?
"Look," I said, with a sinking feeling, "I just can't get away right now. Anyway, I think you need someone who knows your city better than I do. But I've got a suggestion. Why don't you call a Boy Scout troop in your area and ask if they'd take on the search for Tippy as a community project? And maybe you could make a small donation as a token of your appreciation."
After some initial disappointment, he agreed that my idea might be best after all, and I think that when we hung up he was feeling more optimistic. I felt terrible. Sherlock Bones had gained a public reputation that John Keane couldn't live up to yet. If I was going to bill myself as a tracer of missing pets, I had to learn some pet-detecting skills. Visiting pounds was just a beginning. I had to get some cases under my belt, find out more about how and why pets were lost or stolen, and develop some techniques for getting them back. I no longer wondered if I really wanted to make a commitment. The commitment had been made; now I had to back it up.
And the greyhound? She was eventually found, a week after she escaped, and although I was not the one who found her, my initial hunch as to her whereabouts proved accurate. She had indeed taken refuge in a cemetery, about two miles from the Coliseum. Someone spotted her stealing down to a McDonald's restaurant in the early hours of the morning to scavenge leftovers from the garbage cans. This person called the television station, which in turn notified the handler, and he found her up among the gravestones. It's always appealed to my sense of the absurd that the world's most expensive greyhound survived on her own by eating Big Macs. It just shows what the aristocracy will resort to when the chips are down.
Since my phone call from Tippy's owner in Boston some 30 years ago, I think it's fair to say I've learned as much (if not more) than anyone about the world of missing pets and how to recover them. Others who work with animals -- vets, shelter employees, officials in animal-welfare organizations -- get involved with aspects of pet-finding, but their primary responsibilities lie in the areas of health, animal control, lobbying, and/or fund-raising. As a result of my on-the-job experience, I've learned techniques, things to look out for, and ways of dealing with people that can make a search for a pet as efficient and productive as possible. I've also learned what pet owners can do to keep their pets safe. Through consulting with clients I share what I have learned about:
The cases I've worked on have opened my eyes to the many, many ways -- bizarre and poignant, kind and cruel, funny and sad -- the lives of owners and their pets are entwined. The stereotypes of the boy and his dog, the little old lady and her cat, and the family pooch basking in a circle of love do not begin to tell the whole story. I've had frantic calls from a priest who wanted his Doberman back, a pimp whose pit bull was stolen, and a traveling salesman whose Siamese cat escaped from his car while he was making an out-of-town call. People have paid me thousands of dollars to fly to other cities in search of their pets; others have barely been able to afford an ad in the paper. I've had clients at both ends of the caring spectrum -- from the man who admitted (with some surprise), that he was actually relieved at not having to feed and clean up after his lost dog, to the woman who offered a $10,000 reward and spent over a year in a full-time search for her missing mutt. The motivations of people who use my services have included love, desperation, guilt, status-seeking, vindictiveness, and a desire to pacify other family members.
What has been fascinating is how the loss of a pet becomes a moment of truth for the owners, during which they cannot avoid discovering in very concrete terms, just how they feel about that pet and, in the process, something about themselves as well. Declarations of undying love or protestations of cool detachment soon fall by the wayside for in order to find a missing pet, you have to do something. To understand what I mean, imagine that your pet is lost and ask yourself what you would do. Would you telephone one animal shelter to locate it? Several? Visit them in person? Every day? Place an ad in the paper? Several papers? Offer a reward? If so, how much? Stay home from work or from a party to focus on your search? Have posters printed and plaster them all over town? Change your travel plans to hunt down a pet lost during a vacation trip? Badger people you don't think are giving you straight answers? Keep going over a long period of time?
As the owners of missing pets know, there are no hard and fast rules telling you what to do or how to express your feelings. Society gives us acceptable rationalizations for almost any course of action (or inaction): "It's only a dog.”, “We really can't afford it," "My kids are crying their eyes out," or "He's just like a member of the family." It really boils down to a question of examining your own feelings and then acting on them. A large part of my work is helping people get clear about just how much effort they really want to put out to find their pets and then working with them to channel that effort into constructive activity.
Although I went through a period in which I disapproved of anyone who failed to exhaust every possibility of recovering a missing pet, I've long since mellowed. People's resources are not limitless. They do have other priorities. There frequently are good reasons for calling a halt before turning what I would consider to be the last stone. People will expend effort to find a missing pet in direct proportion to the importance to them of that animal. Love, after all, has its limits, although people don't always like to admit it. In fact, dealing with the guilt of letting go is perhaps my most valuable service. I lay no claim to solving every case; many animals simply vanish, and no amount of the cleverest detective work will get them back. What I do tell my clients, however, is if after consulting with me, and giving it their best shot they still haven't found their pet, it can't be found. In the thousands of cases I've worked on over the last thirty years, I have yet to be proven wrong.
By the same token, however, many of my clients are looking for support for overpowering feelings of loss that come as a complete surprise to them. "I had no idea I loved her so much," they will tell me, or, "This is going to sound crazy, but I haven't been able to sleep since he got lost." It doesn't sound crazy to me at all. In today's world where family life isn't as stable as it once was, where many jobs are impersonal, where people move around the country more, where young men and women are postponing marriage and children longer, people ask more of their pets than they used to in the realm of what I can only call human interaction. The old sources of emotional sustenance aren't quite so reliable or readily available as they once were, and many people have replaced them, at least in part, with pets.
Given this state of affairs, who is to say what constitutes a "sick" attachment to an animal? I'm reminded of the woman who called me three days after her dog disappeared. "It's really hitting me hard," she said. "At first I thought I must be crazy, but then I started thinking. I've had Caesar for eleven years, ever since I graduated from college and moved out to California. He's really my oldest friend. He's seen me through two jobs, several boyfriends, a marriage, and a divorce. When my husband and I split up, I must have cried nonstop for three months, but there was Caesar, constantly at my side. I used to wipe my eyes with his ears. I've always had friends, but Caesar is the only thread, the only constant. He goes back farther than anybody."
I've also learned that pets are more than providers of unconditional love and bulwarks against loneliness. I'm not referring just to expensive pedigreed animals that confer status, to guard dogs that offer protection, or to family pets purchased to teach children responsibility. I've worked on cases in which a pet's fragile health has served as a focus for emotional energy between a couple who had virtually no other common interests. I believe many pets serve as family scapegoats, bearing the brunt of the anger and hostility that family members are unable to express directly to each other. I'm convinced this process is the cause of many animals "getting lost." What happens in these cases, and especially with cats, is that they run away -- if not in actual fact than by opening themselves to situations in which other people take them in.
Say what you will about projecting our own feelings onto our pets and then ascribing these feelings to them, my experience has been that animals are incredibly attuned to their owners' emotional states, sometimes even more than the owners themselves. I know a woman who claims that whenever she's going through a period of anxiety and uncertainty, her cat will spend long hours sitting in a closet. "It's like she's meditating," she tells me. "Often she'll start to do it before I'm aware of what's going on myself." I took a dim view of these stories until I met a family therapist who told me she likes to arrange at least one session to include the family pet. "Pets are very sensitive to unexpressed feelings," she said, "and for that reason can be extremely helpful in opening up communication. More than once I've been with a family that seems blocked, and I will notice the dog paying particular attention to one person. Almost invariably that person is sitting on some feeling – usually pain or anger -- and if I can get him or her to open up, we start to make progress."
Another eye-opener for me has been the uncanny fit between owners and their pets; not just in terms of physical appearance (a cliché that, like all clichés, is based on truth), but in terms of emotional process as well. I sometimes think we unconsciously choose the perfect pet with whom to finish off some part of our growing up, although it is not always apparent at the outset what that may be. I've learned this in my own relationship with my own pets.
And while I'm on the subject of links between people and their animals, I might as well come clean about my belief in “positive imaging" as a means of recovering missing pets. With many clients I keep it under my hat, since it sounds like the very essence of New Age nuttiness, but I've seen it work too many times to dismiss it completely. Many people have a hunch about the whereabouts of a missing pet -- like my hunch that the greyhound was hiding in a park or cemetery -- but don't trust their intuition enough to act on it. Now I grant that many hunches are nothing more than educated guesses, but I submit that some have a compelling quality that exceeds a simple knowledge of a pet's habits or other matters of fact. I have found that if owners can clear their minds of worry and fear and simply imagine a happy reunion without trying to anticipate how or when it will happen, they increase the possibility of making that reunion take place. I've got no real stake in proving the theory; all I know is that I've seen it work many times.
Thirty years ago, if someone had predicted that I, an ex-Marine, would one day be deeply involved in the world of missing pets (not to mention these fringe areas of owner-pet communication), I'd have told him to wipe off the old crystal ball and take another look. To this day, am still amazed at the turn of events that my sole searching put in motion. Helping families be reunited, making a real difference in their lives has been a constant source of satisfaction in my own. Thinking back now, I wouldn’t trade one minute of these last thirty years. Besides, it sure beats selling insurance!
©2004-2011 John Keane
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