Your indoor cat doesn’t have a collar or a microchip, and she has somehow gotten out of the house. What do you do? This happened to one of our neighbors recently. If you’re Christine Williams, you don’t give up hope, and you keep working to get your lost cat home.
Phoebe was a healthy, 12 year cat who had lived her whole life in the comfort of an indoor home with Christine. Christine came in very late from work one Monday night and tiredly accepted her boyfriend’s assurance that he had seen Phoebe in the other room. The next morning, she realized that something was wrong and that Phoebe was actually missing. The automatic feeder dropped Phoebe’s meal into the bowl at 8:55 am, and Phoebe didn’t come running to eat it, so Christine knew that Phoebe had been gone since sometime after last night’s dinnertime.
“I tore apart the house… event turned the sofa upside-down,” Christine says. She searched the three-block area. Lost pet web sites said that an indoor cat is usually within a 200 foot radius of the house, but there were no bushes or hiding places around the house… or around any of the neighbor’s houses. Christine was worried that the neighbor’s cat had frightened Phoebe away, or the lawn service which had been through the neighborhood that morning.
When the first day’s searching didn’t turn up the orange tabby, she realized that she was going to have to get more methodical in her searches to bring Phoebe home safely.
Reach Out on Social Media
“I was never a Facebook person,” Christine admits. But to find Phoebe, Christine didn’t just get active on Facebook, she joined other websites, including Nextdoor, which is a social network limited to your neighborhood.
A few days after Phoebe went missing, I started this Facebook campaign. Phoebe’s feeder would give her food at 8:55 at night, so I put it outside in case she could hear it. I asked people to send good thoughts, vibes, prayers, whatever at that time. I really believe in the power of positive thought. So every night at 8:55, I would post a photo of Phoebe and say ‘Phoebe come home!’” Soon, she would run into work who would flash her a thumbs-up and say “8:55!”
Put up Signs
At first, Christine put hastily-created flyers in her neighbor’s mailboxes. “I found out later I shouldn’t do that. It’s not legal to put things in mailboxes.” she says. Soon, she was putting flyers up at every intersection in the neighborhood and handing them out to nearby businesses.
“This was our staging area,” Christine explains, pointing to an area just inside her front door. “ We had posters on one side, and then we had flashlights and we had treats and catnip and toys. Every time we came home we had to get into a routine because we would be coveed in grass and stuff so we would leave all of our stuff out by the front door.”
Canvass the Neighborhood
“That first week, I was crawling in every busy, every nook, every cranny within a four block radius, which is pretty much the whole neighborhood,” Christine explains. There were porches with ripped screen enclosures that worried her because Phoebe might have gotten access to a space that was out of the reach of the search.
“I met so many neighbors,” Christine says. “When I was sure that no one in the area hadn’t heard about Phoebe, I met an older gentleman who lives alone and is disabled. His door was open, and Phoebe could have walked right in.”
Leave Hints for the Lost Cat’s Senses
Christine had the feeder outside to make the sound of dropping a meal every night at 8:55 pm. She left the door to her sunporch open to let the smell of the familiar place out, and she walked through the wooded area between her home and likely hiding places to make a scent trail that a cat could follow to get home.
She even left clothing out to help enhance the scent trail. Being able to alert the neighborhood by social media that she was going to leave clothing outside meant that it was less likely to be removed by well-meaning neighbors.
Talk to Neighbors
“Every time I was out walking, people would ask, ‘Hey have you found your cat?’ ‘No, I’m still looking.’ The neighbors were super-great”, Christine says.
She got lots of phone calls with potential Phoebe sightings. She got to know the routines of the neighborhood… and the neighborhood cats, especially the surprising number of orange ones. “Every night at 6:00 I would get a call saying ‘I see a cat and it might be yours!’ so I would say okay and run out there. As the month went on, I didn’t always go immediately and would ask them to snap a picture and have them send it to me first. And I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s that other cat again!’ Then he would go to the patio homes for the evening, then over by the gas station around midnight. The midnights were crazy because I would get calls at midnight and jump out of bed to run over there.”
Another neighbor around the corner from Christine had two orange cats who he would let out when he got home from work, then let back in around 9pm every day. One Sunday morning, Christine started to get calls that an orange cat had been sighted, but when she got there to check it out, it was one of the neighbor’s two orange cats. “What are you doing out?” Christine asked the cat. “You’re supposed to be in your garage right now!”
About a week after Phoebe went missing, a resident in a nearby neighborhood righted an overturned wheelbarrow in her yard and something orange darted out. She contacted Christine the next day. Christine went to take a look, but the cat was long gone. It was the only call she got while Phoebe was missing that Christine wasn’t able to find the cat that the caller told her about. Since it was located further from home than any other call and across a busy road, she was fairly certain the cat couldn’t have been Phoebe. To be safe, Christine started putting up flyers in that neighborhood, too.
One woman called and apologetically said that she had seen an orange cat dead by the roadside. The woman said it had been a week or two earlier, and she couldn’t give an exact location or even a road name. But the caller was insistent that it was Phoebe that she had seen. “I was skeptical,” Christine says, “but I was shaken up by it.”
After three weeks of searching, Christine started to wonder she wasn’t limited by her senses, and she started wishing she had a search dog who could smell for Phoebe. She did a little research and it turned out there was one in the area who performed search and rescue and was for hire. “The dog sniffed Phoebe’s bed and then walked around with his handler… I told the dog handler about the call the night before from the woman insisting that Phoebe had been hit by a car. The handler said that the dog would know. He could tell if Phoebe was deceased or had left the area.”
There was so much rain since Phoebe went missing that the dog couldn’t get a good trail, but the dog signaled in the back yard of a house down the street that had a lot of landscaping and rockwork. The dog handler said that Phoebe had spent time there.
“The dog gave us hope. It said that Phoebe was still alive, still in the area.” That helped determine a location to set up a feeding station to try to draw Phoebe in.
Wildlife Camera and Humane Trap
Christine rented a wildlife camera that could take photos both day and night, and she set it up to point to the feeding station. “While I was searching the neighborhood, I had seen 30 or 40 cats. There’s a food bowl out on each street. At least one,” Christine says. “And there are so many more. There were cats I’d never seen while searching coming up to the food bowl.”
When she checked the wildlife camera, a cat started to appear there that looked a lot like Phoebe. She couldn’t see if the cat was identical, but at nearly four weeks missing, Christine was grasping at straws.
One of the neighbors mentioned having seen an orange cat. So Christine set up a trap and settled in for a long evening of waiting. “At 7 pm, we caught a cat. It was orange, and I went up to it. I was thinking, could it be her? It looked just like her, but it wasn’t her. He was missing an ear, like it was mangled.”
The disappointment of trapping an orange cat and having it not be Phoebe was difficult after four weeks of searching. “I was sitting on the ground crying. That was a huge, huge blow. I thought, what are we doing?”
Don’t Give Up
After four weeks of searching and the disappointment of the orange cat, Christine was disheartened. “We decided early on we weren’t going to give up because of the stories you hear online where cats are found five or six months later,” she says. She made plans to print up more flyers and send out another blast through the neighborhood, asking people to look on porches, under things, and around vacant homes.
A month after Phoebe went missing, Gwendolyn, the neighbor who had previously overturned the wheelbarrow and seen the orange cat dart out posted a message to the neighborhood Nextdoor web site that she thought she had seen Phoebe.
At the same time, another neighbor also called Christine to give her the information.
Christine called Gwendolyn back and she told her about a vacant house nearby. Christine hurriedly closed the windows on the house that were open to try to lure Phoebe with the scent of home and ran to the car. When she arrived, she searched the area where Gwendolyn had seen the orange cat, but she couldn’t find anything.
“I thought as long as I was here, I should search around the other houses. Then I realized I was going to miss the 8:55 food drop and prayers on Facebook. I posted that I was out following up on a lead and would miss it, but for everyone to still send happy thoughts at 8:55,” Christine says. She walked down the block shaking a cup of treats, looking in bushes and drains. Then she walked back up behind the houses on the block. It was getting so dark that she was running into low-hanging tree limbs. She saw neighborhood cats and thought this couldn’t possibly be the place, since Phoebe doesn’t like other cats.
“Then I thought I heard a sound ‘Phoebe!’ I called. A little face popped out from behind a bird of paradise plant ‘Phoebe!’ I knelt down and reached out a hand with the treats, and she came running up to me,” Christine recalls. “And I thought, ‘What just happened? Was it really that easy?’” She picked Phoebe up and realized that she still had a flashlight in one hand and her car keys buried in her pocket. “I was holding her trying to figure out what to do. You can hold her a little, but she starts to squirm.” Christine abandoned her flashlight. “I was right next door to where I had parked. She was clawing my back at this point, and she was so, so skinny. I got her into the car and I locked the car like she could somehow get out if I didn’t lock the doors.”
Christine started the car for a careful drive home as Phoebe at in the back seat, and she saw that the clock read 8:55. All of the positive thinking from her friends had helped bring Phoebe home. And a lot of neighbors all looking out for one little, orange cat.
Phoebe was checked out by a vet the morning after her return, and she didn’t have a scratch on her, though she had lost half of her body weight. She has since been microchipped, just in case she gets out again.
Two days later, another neighborhood cat was killed by coyotes a block away from where Christine ultimately found Phoebe. Christine found her just in time.
Six weeks later, Phoebe is slowly regaining weight after her drastic weight loss during her time lost. And Christine has a new appreciation for her neighborhood and for her neighbors. “People were so supportive,” she says. It was ultimately neighbors looking for Phoebe and a little help from social media that helped get Phoebe home.
Special thanks to Christine Williams for taking the time to tell me the story her month-long search for Phoebe. There’s much more to the story I had to edit for space.