Out to find our ‘ Normans ’
• The length to which people will go to find their missing pets is getting longer.
Staff photo by Shauna Bittle
Pet detective Melody Pugh and dog owner Curt Freese search for Freese’s dog J.J., missing for two weeks. Pugh examines a nearby wilderness feeding ground for evidence of the dog’s presence.
By Chad Lewis, Sun Staff
There was the Kitsap County family who rented a helicopter with infrared to search for their little white dog, Janie.
There was the Woodinville man who paid $8,000 for pictures from a Russian satellite to search for his dog, Duna.
Then there was the Snohomish County woman who urinated along a highway trying to create a scent trail her dog could detect.
For many pet owners, simply posting a flyer on telephone poles isn’t going nearly far enough.
There are now professional pet detectives, with Bremerton featuring one of the nation’s most recognized.
Melody Pugh received national attention in 1996 for her efforts to find her missing gray cat. Pugh quit her job at Naval Station Bremerton so she could dedicate all of her time to finding Norman .
Over a span of 95 days, Pugh personally responded to 646 calls, including a drive to Oregon . She racked up more than 8,000 miles on her Trans Am.
“I would go out for milk and be gone for more than three hours because I would go looking for Norman ,” says Pugh. “After three weeks, my friends and my husband told me to give up. But I couldn’t.”
While searching for Norman , Pugh reunited other pet owners with their cats.
“I was finding everybody’s cat but mine,” says Pugh. She did find Norman , and her story was carried in newspapers across the country.
Pugh’s newfound skill soon turned into a profession. Eventually, she become a licensed private detective. Within months, she was being flown across the country to help distressed pet owners willing to do anything.
Pugh has performed searches in nearly every state in the nation, including a job in Florida and several in New York . She will search any day of the year, including holidays, and will take late-night phone calls to comfort distraught pet owners.
She has found more than 715 pets, including the cat of a New York veterinarian who initially was too embarrassed to tell Pugh her profession.
One client paid her $1,200 for a full-day’s search. Some wealthy clients have flown their airplanes to pick her up.
“One woman in East Bremerton cut off her hair and used it to create a scent trail that her pet could pick up,” says Pugh with a laugh. “Now, I didn’t tell this woman to cut off her hair.”
At first glance, many observers are likely to write off such actions as those of a few flighty dog and cat people. But are these neurotic pet owners or is this merely an extension of a nation that is obsessed with its pets?
In 2003, PetsMart, which carries more than 12,000 products, racked up nearly $3 billion in sales. Rival Petco had sales of $1.6 billion.
The West Sound market mirrors this trend. In addition to PETsMART and Petco stores in Kitsap County , local department stores also cater to pet-friendly consumers.
Fred Meyer’s newly remodeled Bremerton store has more than 350 feet of display space for its pet products. The aisle for baby items, including diapers, bottles, food and formula, meanwhile, takes up 80 feet.
An examination of a Kitsap phone directory reveals just how much residents here are crazy about their animals. The Yellow Pages include 76 veterinarians, 18 pet groomers, 16 pet boarding facilities, 13 kennels and 10 dog trainers.
“It’s becoming more acceptable to spend more on your pets,” says Dana Lerma,
development manager at Humane Society of
Kitsap County. “When most Americans lived on farms, cats and dogs served a function. But when we moved to cities, they became more like companions, and we treat them that way.”
“Plus,” Lerma adds, “we as a nation have so much expendable income that we can afford to spend lots of money on our pets, and we certainly do.”
Dr. Jim Little of All Creatures Animal Hospital in Gorst says the biggest difference he’s noticed since he started his practice in 1982 is how people relate to their pet.
“People today take more responsibility, not just for their pet’s health, but for their pet’s happiness,” says Little. “In some cases, I’ve seen people who are more concerned about their pet than they are their children.”
Little points to two main reasons why over the past few decades Americans have changed their relationship with animals.
Part of the trend is linked to television.
“When the pet of a TV character is missing or injured, you see a great deal of sympathy and empathy,” says Little. “I don’t know if that’s a reflection or a promotion of our values, but it’s there on TV.”
Secondly, Americans today are having fewer children, creating a void for nurturing. Plus, Americans live longer, meaning more “empty nesters” seek things to comfort.
Whatever the reason, Little has noticed a shift.
This increased connection between pets and their owners has led to higher levels of anxiety when Tiger goes missing.
“People now don’t view them as a commodity or property,” says Little. “People view them as unique individuals that they’ll never be able to replace. So, when they go missing, people really can get very, very upset.”
One of these is Curt Freese of Seabeck.
In a heavily forested area where raccoons, coyotes, wolves and cougars roam, Freese’s blue tick beagle, J.J., has been missing for two weeks. Freese realizes that J.J. likely has been picked off by a predator, but he has asked Pugh, the pet detective and certified private detective, to help him scour the forests of Seabeck.
It’s the Sunday before Memorial Day and Pugh and Freese are roaming a feeding ground where carcasses are scattered. Freese carries a pistol just in case a cougar is returning from a kill.
“If he’s dead,” Freese says, momentarily choking up, “I want to know. If he’s alive, I want to find him.”
Pugh has developed a science to finding animals, ranging from house cats to tarantulas to a chicken named KFC. As she learns from experience and research, her success rate has increased — from 45 percent to 68 percent.
And a lot of what she has learned contradicts pet owner’s instincts.
“The first thing people do is start driving around in their car, thinking their cat will recognize the sound of their engine,” says Pugh. “But during the day, it’s hard for an animal to distinguish your car from other cars. And you’re driving around 20 miles per hour. What cat can run that fast?
“You’re really better off just walking really slowly, and just listening really carefully. Don’t go in groups, because you’ll start talking and not paying attention to clues.”
Finding a pet near a golf course is particularly difficult — insecticides used on the turf deaden an animal’s sense of smell. And, much to the dismay of pet owners, animals that have been missing for a long period of time are not likely to come running to their owners.
What makes finding a missing pet so difficult is animal instinct.
“When a cat or small dog is lost, they’re no longer predators — they’re prey,” says Pugh. “So, they’re going to hide. They’ll only come out to get food. You’ll usually find them after they run out of food and have to venture out more.”
This primal existence also makes it more difficult to distinguish a pampered pet from an alley cat.
“If a cat’s been lost for seven months, they’re going to look scruffy and really thin,” says Pugh. “Actually, that scruffy-looking cat could very easily be somebody’s pet.”
Pugh is well aware that some people scoff at her profession and those who call on her assistance. She has heard the term “crazy cat lady,” even from close friends.
But, having nearly lost her own precious cat once, Pugh doesn’t see people desperate to find their missing pets misguided; she sees them as committed.
“For me, it’s all about responsibility,” she says. “When Norman was lost, I caused the situation. For three months, he was out there cold, lost and hungry, and it wasn’t Norman ’s fault. It was my fault.”
• Melody Pugh, (360) 373-4218; Pawsfinder@pet-detective.com or Web page, www.pet-detective.com
• Kitsap Humane Society, (360) 692-6977
Reach reporter Chad Lewis at (360) 792-9216 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letter to Melody from Chad Lewis the day the article ran~
My story ran in today's edition (Sunday, July 27, Your Life). It was a
real hit with the editors. They normally don't refer to Your Life
stories in the skybox on Page A1, but they liked the story so much they
wanted to tease it for readers.
Thanks for all your help — you were by far my best source. And thanks
for pointing me to Dr. Little in Gorst. He gave me EXACTLY what I was
looking for as far as perspective from a veteran in the field.
This is Sunday and I've already had writers and editors walk by and
tell me they love the story. I've never had that before.
Thanks again for your help with the story. And say hi to Norman for me.