Search and rescue, doggy-style

Meet the pioneering pet detectives that have British Columbians paying top dollar.

BY SARAH BERMAN, THE TYEE

When my cat went missing this summer, the last place I thought to look was the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong—I look at cute animals on the interwebs as much as the next Buzzfeed reader. I just never thought such an activity would somehow result in my pet’s return.

That was before I discovered British Columbia is home to one of the most active pet-finding social media communities in North America, founded and maintained by professional pet detectives.

You read that right: there exist paid professionals (both human and canine) whose sole occupation is solving pet mysteries. But instead of the freestyle tactics of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura, these guys apply years of hunting and tracking experience to recovering clients’ missing animals (or “loved ones” as it’s phrased on their website).

Fido missing? Call in the chopper!

“One in three pets will go missing in its lifetime,” explains Alesha MacLellan, half of the husband-wife duo that started Petsearchers Canada last September. The MacLellans have built a full-time business around tracking lost pets with two scent-trained bloodhounds, a rapid-fire Facebook page, night-vision cameras, motion sensors, humane traps and the occasional helicopter.

According to Alesha, my first pet-tracking instincts were seriously lacking.

“One of the most important and critical steps is to get the word out on the street—to take the time and make posters, get out of the house and get looking,” she says, reiterating that the first hours are critical. “If your pet is in the immediate area, somebody might see the poster and call you.”

I was inclined to forego posters and door-knocking in favour of a Craigslist ad (a friend had assured me this was the 21st century way). To my surprise, the Internet pulled through: my cat was returned within two days, thanks to the online activities of total strangers.

In the age of social media, my experience isn’t terribly uncommon. This week, more than 6,000 people interacted with the Petsearchers affiliated Facebook page, Missing Pets in BC. Scrolling through dozens of posts over the course of one day, matches between lost and found animals happen in real time.

On Tuesday, July 30, Jason Wittenberg spotted a dog running loose in Maple Ridge. Just seven minutes after he shared a photo of the wandering husky, owners identified their little guy in an emoticon-dense comment thread.

“We like to get pets home whether or not they’ve hired us,” says MacLellan.

Which is great, because as a writer, I would not be able to afford the standard bloodhound tracking service (valued at $395), let alone an aerial search, which, though rarely used, costs about two months of rent ($1,199 and up). Though she hasn’t recorded the number of free online finds they’ve facilitated, MacLellan says they’ve recovered over 250 dogs and cats across the Lower Mainland using their specialized ground tactics.

“We want to start keeping better track,” MacLellan says. “We’re going through a phase where there’s only so many hours in a day, and so lets get the ads done and the phone calls made and we’ll worry about stats when we have five minutes to breathe.”

When it comes to physical rescues, MacLellan says no two are the same. Each animal has a different temperament and environment to consider. “It’s really variable. Every case is different,” she says. “In a lot of cases the bloodhounds will lead us right to the cat or dog, and that’s what the goal is, but in the case of a roaming dog, they might be moving 12 kilometres per hour.”

Al MacLellan uses hunting experience to better understand where a spooked animal might be headed before it arrives. “If a dog settles in an area, traps can be effective, but it’s so individual.”

Petsearchers’ national ambitions

Of course, not all clients receive a payoff for hiring a pro’s nose. Perhaps one of Vancouver’s saddest, most visible missing pet campaigns reached the seven-month mark recently: that of Levi the mini Australian shepherd. In March, owner Tracy Myerson of East Vancouver told Global TV she had spent $10,000 on professional help, and had sacrificed about $15,000 in lost wages. Levi is still missing.

With zero Canadian competitors able to execute high-level tracking operations, MacLellan says she gets some panicked phone calls from several time zones east. To meet demand, she envisions a coast-to-coast network of trained pet trackers.

“I definitely think B.C. has a huge amount of animal lovers, and animal lovers are very passionate people,” she says of Petsearchers’ early success. “But when you look at pet ownership across Canada, I do think there’s a need for a service like this in every community.”

“In such a brand new type of business, there are no other successful models to look at,” she adds. “The challenge for us is learning how to grow.”

(In case you’ve already guessed, yes, Petsearchers Canada will be appearing on CBC’s Dragon’s Den in the fall.)

Dragon’s Den investment aside, Petsearchers have done a lot of growing already. Since I first interviewed MacLellan in June, they’ve expanded their online team from two volunteers to six. They’re also hiring a field assistant, to help with postering and cameras.

Hundreds of supporters and volunteers put in time to assist with these searches on the ground and online. I spoke to one of Petsearchers’ volunteer web admins, who explained her draw to online tracking this way: “I don’t get vomited or peed on like I did when I worked at a vet clinic.”

As for the furriest volunteers, “they definitely are our pets, and they’re definitely working dogs as well,” says MacLellan. “They live for it. They can’t jump in the van fast enough to go tracking.”

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