Detectives on pets' tails

For animal trackers, a busy time of the year

June 23, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

Here were the facts:

Subject had fled in panic two days earlier. Unresponsive to repeated calls. Known to fear men - and Styrofoam packing peanuts.

No question, it was a case for Laura Totis and her trusty sidekick, Chewy, she of the neon sense of smell. If these pros couldn't solve this case, maybe no one could.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about pet detectives in Monday's editions incorrectly referred to ferrets as rodents. Ferrets are in the weasel family.
The Sun regrets the error.

Pet detective and German shepherd pulled into a Reisterstown cul-de-sac at the back end of dusk. There stood Namha Corbin, frowning owner of the missing subject, one freshly shorn Wheaten terrier named Biscuit. And waiting with Corbin was the guilt-racked dog-sitting friend on whose watch Biscuit had disappeared.

Totis is one of two full-time pet sleuths in the Baltimore area who field several calls each week about a missing pet. Usually the lost is a dog or cat, but not always. Totis and her collegial competitor, Sam Connelly of Pure Gold Pet Trackers, have found themselves on the heels of a ferret in Canton, a llama, even a pet skunk in Pennsylvania.

This tends to be a busy time of year. Warm weather means more pets left outside, more doors and gates left ajar. Invariably, Fourth of July fireworks send dogs running for their lives.

As part of their services, Totis and Connelly offer practical, and at times obvious-sounding advice that they say can make all the difference. For example, they are big believers in well-placed posters with a phone number in large type.

Such techniques - recommended by Connelly to a client - led to the return of Mike the ferret after a neighbor who had seen posters spied the rodent slinking across his backyard.

But both trackers always stand ready to deploy their four-legged associates, whose schnozzes are capable of following a smell back to its fluffy source.

That's exactly what Chewy was itching to do that evening in Reisterstown when she hopped out of the car already in her blue harness. To prep herself, she was offered a few whiffs of Biscuit's dog bed. Then it was time to get serious about finding this pooch.

By now, Totis had gleaned the essentials of Biscuit's disappearance. Mareco Edwards, Corbin's now miserable friend, told the tale. Corbin, a lawyer, had dropped Biscuit off at his place Sunday before leaving on a business trip. Everything went fine until Tuesday evening when Edwards was working in his garage with Biscuit lying nearby. Then, BAM! a crack of bone-rattling thunder.

Dog and man jumped. Then, BAM! another ear-splitting clap. This time, Biscuit, regarding Edwards as if he were Zeus hurling thunderbolts, rocketed out of the open garage and into the stormy night.

Edwards, a 39-year-old insurance broker, gave chase, but realized he didn't stand much chance of catching Biscuit while wearing flip-flops. He returned home to put on sneakers, but when he went back out, he couldn't find her. He resumed the search in his SUV. Nothing.

Finally, he called Corbin, who was preparing to board a flight home from Cincinnati. Without realizing that he was shouting into the phone, Edwards broke the bad news: He had lost her 10-month-old baby.

All she could think to tell him was to relax and try calling Biscuit with an "inside voice."

Corbin got home near midnight, and there was still no sign of her dog. She immediately joined Edwards in the search, but other than learning that two neighbors had seen Biscuit in their yard, the night turned up nothing. No Biscuit, no crumbs. The next day, Corbin and Edwards took off work to print fliers, visit shelters, and post Web notices.

That Thursday, Edwards stumbled across the Web site of LJT Training, Totis' dog training and tracking business in Hampstead. That evening, she and Chewy arrived.

By then, Corbin was harboring the worst thoughts. Even if something terrible had befallen poor Biscuit, she just wanted to know what had happened. Totis, 45 and cheerful, said it was too soon for such talk, even if she didn't think this night would necessarily turn up Biscuit. A large entourage, she said, could well make a skittish dog even more so. Still, Totis said, she thought Chewy might be able to provide vital clues about Biscuit's flight path.

Totis began doing pet searches six years ago, after requests from pet owners to branch out beyond the human search-and-rescue operations she conducted, and still does. She takes the job seriously. You won't hear her make any cracks involving either the word Ace or Ventura.

About 80 percent of her animal cases are successful, she says, though she is quick to add that she and Chewy are just one factor. (She never did find that pet skunk in Pennsylvania, and the llama was corralled before she got there.)

A dedicated pet owner is key, she says. In this case it helped that Biscuit not only had ID tags but a microchip embedded under her skin. When scanned, it would reveal Corbin's phone number.

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