Recently I worked a case involving a missing cat named Ginger.
Christina from Seattle had fostered the stray Siamese but as soon as she brought her into her home she discovered that Ginger was afraid of her Labrador. So she closed Ginger off in her bedroom and all was well. But a few days later in the middle of the night her dog pushed open the bedroom door and scared Ginger out of the bedroom.
You wouldn’t think that this would be that big of a problem, right? Well, the house was a two story Victorian-type home with a basement and plenty of hiding places. Christina began searching for Ginger but she could not find her. She pulled furniture out, looked up under bed mattresses, and even tore up a few boards on a stairwell. By the time she contacted me and asked me to respond, Ginger had been “missing” for over a week.
Volunteer Jim Branson and I responded with search dog Sadie. Although Christina was afraid that the cat may have somehow found a way to get out of the house, I was convinced that Ginger was simply hiding in silence. This is a common behavior in cats that I call, “The Silence Factor.” I’ve worked cases where panicked cats have hidden in complete silence for many days, sometimes several weeks!
The first clue (which turned out to be a red herring) was poop in a shoe. A guest staying in the basement told Christina that he’d found poop in one of his shoes. Besides her dog, Christina also had two other cats in the house but they were not allowed access to the basement. I asked Christina if her cats had ever pooped outside of their litter box and she told me “No.” Christina also said that she had put cat food down in the basement but that it disappeared. She told me that the basement door had been kept closed so that her dog and other two cats could not enter the basement.
I assumed that this would be the easiest find ever. Whereas Christina was skeptical that Ginger would still be in the house, I was convinced that we would locate Ginger’s hiding spot in the basement.
As usual, things didn’t go as planned. While Sadie showed interest in the basement, she give a strong alert. Jim and I searched the basement with our 2 million candle power spotlight and plumber’s camera with no results.
Next, Christina asked if I could have Sadie check a room on the second floor. During the search of a closet on the 2nd floor, Sadie gave a strong alert (whining and tail wiggles). We quickly discovered one of Christina’s house cats hiding in the closet, but no Ginger. So our focus shifted from the 2nd floor and returned to the basement. I had Sadie search it one more time, but she still did not alert. While I was concerned about this, I trusted the physical evidence (cat feces in a shoe and missing food) and not my dog. Big mistake!
Two days later, Christina called. The digital camera solved the mystery of the missing food and the cat poop in the shoe. It turns out that her Labrador had found a way to push open the basement door and he was eating the food and allowing the other house cats access to the basement.
Christina told me that she now believed that Ginger had somehow escaped out of the house. She took the digital camera and set it up down the streetby a school near where she had rescued Ginger, thinking perhaps the stray would return to her old territory. Christina captured plenty of raccoons on the camera, but not Ginger.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to think. A part of me still wanted to believe that Ginger was hiding in the basement, but with the dog having free access to the basement I began to doubt this scenario as well. I figured if the basement door was not closely monitored, perhaps other doors weren’t monitored and Ginger had in fact slipped out of the house.
About a week later, the mystery was solved. Christina called and said that she had found Ginger! Somehow she had squeezed through a small (it was 3″X2″ – we photographed it with a ruler next to it) hole in the wall in her son’s bedroom. She hid in the wall between that bedroom and the hall closet for a total of 17 days and remained silent until Christina came up with the idea of bringing another meowing (crated) cat into her house. Immediately Christina heard Ginger meowing in response and zeroed in on her location. She used a crowbar and broke down the wall in her hall closet. When she opened the hole, Ginger shot out like a bullet! She was very hungry and thirsty, but she was fine.
What I love about pet detective work is that I am always learning new things. Unfortunately sometimes I learn by making mistakes! The first mistake I made was that I locked onto one theory and was the victim of “tunnel vision.” I was so convinced that Ginger was in the basement but even when my cat detection dog did not alert on cat scent, I didn’t change my search strategy. My second mistake was that I did not search the entire house, especially the first floor which is where Ginger was hiding.
Like many of the other lost pet investigations that I’ve worked over the past 13 years, I will use this experience to teach future pet detectives three things: (1) don’t lock onto one theory to the point of excluding all others (2) conduct a thorough physical search of your entire search area (which in this case was the entire interior of the house), and (3) trust your search dog!