Under the houses and through the woods: pet detective finds lost pets
June 11, 2008 · Updated 10:54 AM
"Pet detective Melody Pugh has a gift. Take the story of Rocky, for example.When Rocky got lost, his Seattle owner called Pugh for help.Pugh had been looking for the chihuahua for about a week when she decided to go to a big area to look for the tiny dog. She entered a thicket of woods with patches of brush and cleared overgrowth piled on the ground. She sat down to listen.All of a sudden, I heard a little sneeze, she said. Rocky was sitting on a stump sticking out of a nearby pile of brush. He had been missing three weeks.He blended in so well with his surroundings, Pugh said she could hardly see him. The pet detective had neighbors call his owner. Although he was in Seattle, Pugh waited for the owner to arrive.Then there's Riley, a white pit bull terrier with tawny spots who got out of her yard. Her owner called Pugh to help get her back. After Pugh and the owner hung fliers and began searching, a neighbor called to say she had seen a dog fitting the description - except it had blood on its side.Pugh said to expect the worst and followed up on the call. They found Riley lying in a berry bush in a vacant lot.The dog had been hit by a truck and dragged down the street. All the fur and skin along her side was stripped away, leaving a red, raw swath of exposed subcutaneous tissue. Her right front leg hung on her body by skin and tendons. Whenever someone would approach her, she would dig herself farther into the bush, Pugh said. She called animal control to help get her out of the tree and into surgery.Pugh helped nurse Riley back to health, changing bandages three times a day. Riley was in a lot of pain, she said, and she would growl, but she never bit. She convalesced for four months.She went through hell and back, Pugh said.Riley is fine now, although three-legged.The question is, how does she do it?I don't have an answer for how I get people's pets back, she said. It's unexplainable.It all started when Pugh lost her cat, Norman.She was taking Norman to the vet, but she didn't have him in a pet carrier. A noise scared him, and he split. Pugh hung fliers, made phone calls and followed up on every call she received. She walked the area looking for him, but with no luck. Kitties are known to travel up to five miles away when they get lost, she said.During her search, she found other people's lost pets. Norman was still gone.Although she said she's not churchy, Pugh cried as she finally typed a prayer on her computer asking for Norman's safekeeping and emergence into the light of day where someone would find him.Soon after, a young woman with a paper route called.She said she'd gotten the number from a flier because she'd seen a cat matching the description at the beginning of her route. She, too, prayed, asking God to bring the kitty into the light of day so if it was the same cat, she would be able to find it. Pugh said she raced to the house where Norman was supposed to be. I got that feeling that I get when I know I'm close, she said. They found him under the house. He was so thin, he looked like a broken down horse, she said. His legs weren't working well, and his coordination was off. Had we not found him, he would have died, Pugh said. Norman had been missing for 95 days.But the experience helped Pugh find her niche in life. Now, she tells people who lose their pets never to give up. People lack the drive to keep looking because they're surrounded by unbelievers, she said. Pugh keeps believing, encouraging people to make more calls, hang more fliers and get out of their cars. If a pet lasts 72 hours without turning up dead, it's out there, she said. And it's waiting to be found.For her part, she wanders strange neighborhoods and Bremerton's seedy streets, hitting up prostitutes and gang members for information on lost pets.Once, she searched a convicted rapist's house, even questioning him about the whereabouts of a lost pet. She found out who he was when her dentist called to tell her to be careful.She was attacked by a chow dog who bit her pant leg and trapped her between a screen door and entry door until some construction workers rescued her. She carries a cell phone now.I've been known not to come home, she said. But the best time to spot a lost cat is in the wee hours, she said.Pugh's method is one of stillness. I'm absolutely quiet; my mouth is shut. I'm using my ears and my eyes, she said. She'll wear shorts into the woods so she can feel for spiders' webs strung between low branches. She'll find cat trails by the areas where there aren't any webs.While she's at it, she looks for webs that have had dew knocked off by transient cats.She sits quietly on forest floors and listens for the smallest sound. She looks for paw prints in moisture on leaves and in the dust around foundations. She crawls under houses and looks down holes. Pets can't hear under a house, she said. Owners need to get on the ground near the hole and, using an indoor voice, call the pet. Yelling is usually ineffective, she said: pets won't come because they think they're in trouble.Pugh tells lost pet owners to sit down and listen. If you think you heard a familiar meow, you did. Spend time in that area, she said.Fliers are a critical part of the search, Pugh said. She tells people where to put them (on the refrigerator door). She includes ideas of how people can help look (under homes, in garages), and she specifically tells people to call if they think they might have seen the pet.Some people don't want to get a lost pet owner's hopes up over the wrong pet, so they won't call, Pugh said. Until pets are found, she encourages people to keep looking.Don't give up. Don't let the fliers do everything. You have to go out, respond to every call, don't leave any stone unturned, she said.Pugh said she works seven days a week, consumed with finding lost pets. Her fliers, ink, computer equipment, programs and long-distance calls come out of her own pocket. She spent about $17,000 last year, not including gas, phone calls contacting pet owners and paper. She spent $653 on printer ink.Pugh would like to see a day when an availability of resources to help people find their pets will make her unnecessary.Pets are family members. They're not just animals that live in their homes, she said.When you lose your pet, I am the detective, the FBI, and the Missing Pet Network, she said. I am the sole person that stands alone. I can't fall through on one thing. If I'm sick, if I'm hurt, I still get up and go do it. If I don't, what happens to the pet? I have to be 100 percent, she said.Given the hours and effort she puts into searching for pets, Pugh said she doesn't get tired. One will be sort of tugging on me ... I need to focus on this particular one, she said. She's not sure how."