Across the world tens of millions of loved pets go missing every year. Some wander off, some are stolen and some come to grief without their owners ever knowing the fates that befell their fluffy friends.
In the US alone 10 million cats and dogs are reported missing each year. In the UK, every hour around 60 pets go missing. Their sad little faces peer out from posters taped to lampposts, while social media echoes with the desperate pleas of their owners.
My cat, Alvin, is one of the vanished; his memory is kept alive by flyers in the streets around my home near London and in repeated posts on the local community Facebook page.
He was last seen in the early hours of February 3 this year. At 4am he started scratching the carpet, so my partner Stephanie got up to let him out. He slunk off into the early-morning gloom.
Later that day we had a new front door fitted. We recently had the back garden landscaped as well. Like most cats, Alvin doesn’t like change, so he threw a feline hissy fit and went AWOL. This is my hope.
‘He’ll be in a house nearby, being fed by a well-meaning elderly lady,’ I tell Stephanie. Secretly though, in darker moments I worry that he’s met with an accident on a road, or even worse, that he’s become a victim of the so-called Cat Ripper of Croydon; a mysterious criminal who has mutilated several cats in a town just six miles from the village we live in and who some suspect will soon venture further afield in search of prey.
In the face of these concerns, phase one of Operation Alvin swung into action three days after our cat went missing. Neighbours and local businesses were alerted and details were posted on the village social media page. Then we took delivery of several boxes of posters and leaflets, printed and couriered by a company called Animal Search UK; a search service for owners with missing pets. We’ve delivered hundreds of leaflets and hung waterproof, vandal-proof posters in strategic locations.
A reward is on offer and there is now a dedicated phone line manned 24/7 by an operator. The service is designed to encourage people who may not wish to contact owners directly.
The weeks since Alvin’s disappearance have been a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. Initially, several calls pinpointed a specific area nearby where Alvin may have been sighted. Despite several patrols we’ve yet to see him. Another line of inquiry led to the nearby doorstep of a confused elderly resident. But again, we’ve yet to find evidence of him at her property.
Then last week I thought we had a breakthrough. A gentleman named Richard who lived several miles away saw one of our posters and called to inform us that a cat matching Alvin’s description had appeared in his garden over a series of consecutive evenings. I asked that he call me the next time the cat appeared and when he did two nights later I sped over to his house full of hope.
There, in the dark, sat a cat that looked identical to Alvin. He greeted me with a degree of nonchalance and I assumed that several weeks on the road had dimmed his memory. He did not run away when I approached and stroked him and although he was thinner than I remembered, I was convinced it was my cat, so I grabbed him and stuffed him in the animal carrier I’d taken along.
Richard watched the emotional reunion and commented on my tears of joy when I thanked him for reuniting us.
‘It’s OK to have a cry,’ he said as he patted me on the shoulder. ‘It’s nice that I have been able to facilitate a happy ending.’
When I got the cat home and released him from the cage, in the light he did indeed look a Doppelgänger for Alvin, apart from two small details. Alvin had been castrated, the cat I had appropriated had not. Thirty minutes later, after given the shell-shocked interloper a meal, I was back at Richard’s, releasing the animal.
Since then there have been no more sightings, fake or otherwise. However, I have options. If phase one of Operation Alvin does not bear fruit, Animal Search UK also offers the option of a search team, which will conduct systematic door-to-door enquiries, starting from Alvin’s last-known location.
We have also had advice from one of the UK’s most successful missing pet investigation agencies, The Pet Detectives. The company is run by private investigator and former police detective Colin Butcher.
‘Usually we can work out by talking to owners whether we are dealing with a stray cat or a stolen cat,’ he explained. ‘There are certain breeds of cats such as Russian Blues and British Shorthair that are personable and pretty, which make them more attractive for thieves.’
‘Cat thieves are opportunists, they are normally your neighbours,’ continued Butcher. ‘They differ from dog thieves who are usually specialists making a living stealing specific dogs, which are then supplied to small breeders. They target the most commercial breeds, such as springer spaniels, which have large litters. There is an enormous, unregulated black market in stolen dogs.’
This black market in stolen pets does not just exist in the UK. Dogs and cats go missing across the world, including in the UAE.
‘This is a group of people, stealing pets in order to sell them. They know exactly which dog they want to steal, where and when. They break into houses to steal the dogs,’ says Raghad Auttabashi of the animal welfare organisation Al Rahma Welfare Society in Abu Dhabi. ‘It happens in the same areas, and people are after the same kind of dogs. It is very clear that these dogs get stolen.’
Abu Dhabi resident Karen Pryce lost two of her huskies two years ago after a storm blew a door open, allowing them to venture outside. According to Karen, the possibility that they were stolen is almost certain in the area where she lives.
‘When I was putting up posters in the area, one of my neighbours told me he was sure they would not be lost on the streets. Someone would have picked them up to be sold, especially since they are huskies,’ she explained at the time.
‘Everybody in this area knows what is going on here. There have been a lot of cases where dogs were picked up from the street and sold somewhere else, and huskies are a popular breed. As soon as I mention that my dogs are huskies, people get concerned. The vets, the pet shop owners and neighbours will all be able to tell you of stories of how these dogs disappear and are later found in the market.’
Some markets are poorly monitored and stolen pets can easily be sold in them. In another reported case a British Dubai resident turned detective to recover her stolen husky puppy after it went missing from the compound she lived in one night. Following the disappearance, she spoke to Dubai Police and was allowed to view the CCTV footage of her residence. The film showed a small bus arriving at her back door the night the animal went missing. A man emerged from the vehicle and called the dog, which went to him.
Investigations then led to the Animal Market in Sharjah where the woman located the puppy and bought it back for Dh600.
While the concept of dedicated pet detectives has yet to take off in the Emirates, some non-profit organisations do offer help and support to owners when their animals go missing.
K9 Friends is a Dubai-based dog rescue and rehoming service. It offers this advice: ‘Your best bet to get your pet back is to make sure he’s easily identified. If he’s found by someone, then a municipality registration-number, microchip or disc with your name and telephone number on it is his ticket home. Owners of pedigree dogs and larger breeds should be aware that dogs are often stolen to be resold, or to be used for dog-fighting, which sadly still takes place in the UAE. Please be aware of your dog’s whereabouts at all times.’
The voluntary organisation runs a lost dogs database and notifies owners about reports of stray or found dogs that match the descriptions of those lost. It also advises owners to call and visit the municipality to report a missing dog.
‘A visit in person is often more effective as the Municipality are not always good at tracking down owners and their knowledge of different breeds of dogs is limited,’ K9 Friends suggests.
Placing advertisements in the daily newspapers, informing neighbours and watchmen and placing posters around the neighbourhood, in supermarkets and near schools and other areas where there is the greatest footfall are also good ideas.
Both The Pet Detectives and Animal Search in the UK claim an impressive 80 per cent success rate, so I am allowing myself some optimism that Alvin will soon be recovered. If he is not, there are other more extreme options available. Pet owners can now hire remote-control aerial drones to search hard-to-reach places, and companies also offer sniffer dogs for rent, which can pick up the scent of missing pets.
Ironically, given all the activity, I never wanted a cat. I am allergic to them. Stephanie insisted though and Alvin, a Bengal cross, arrived two years ago. We had teething problems. He was insanely jealous and attacked me frequently, often drawing blood. After several months we reached an impasse. Since then I have become quite attached to the little fellow. We used to share knowing, sympathetic glances when Stephanie would dress him up in ridiculous cat attire purchased from the internet. I would chuckle to myself when Alvin would lunge at the children from behind a bush in the garden. On occasion we used to share fresh fish for dinner.
When he wandered off, he left a small, empty, cat-shaped hole in my life, so while some may argue that the costs and effort of Operation Alvin outweigh the value of the pet and that I could easily get a replacement, they simply don’t know Alvin like I do.