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The Search for Phoebe: Tips to Find a Missing Cat

Christine Williams woke up to find her indoor cat had escaped. Here's how she got Phoebe back.

Julie McAlee  |  Dec 30th 2015


Your indoor cat doesn’t have a collar or a microchip, and she has somehow gotten out of the house. What do you do? If you’re like Christine Williams, you don’t give up hope, and you keep working to get your lost cat home.

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Christine’s 12 year-old-cat Phoebe had lived her whole life in the comfort of the indoors. One night, Christine came in very late from work and accepted her boyfriend’s assurance that the absent Phoebe was in the other room. The next morning, Christine realized Phoebe was missing.

Christine searched the three-block area, worried that the neighbor’s cat or the lawn service had frightened Phoebe away. When the first day’s search didn’t turn up the orange tabby, Christine realized she would have to get more methodical in her searches to bring Phoebe home safely.

Here’s what she did, and what you can do in a similar situation.

Reach out on social media

“I was never a Facebook person,” Christine admits. “A few days after Phoebe went missing, I started this Facebook campaign. Phoebe’s feeder would give her food at 8:55 p.m., so I put it outside in case she could hear it. I asked people to send good thoughts, vibes, prayers, whatever at that time. Every night at 8:55, I would post a photo of Phoebe and say ‘Phoebe come home!’” Soon, friends she saw at work would flash a thumbs-up and say “8:55!”

Post signs

At first, Christine put flyers she had created quickly in her neighbor’s mailboxes. “I found out later it’s not legal to put things in mailboxes,” she says. Instead, she put them up at every intersection in the neighborhood and handed them out to nearby businesses.

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“That first week, I was crawling in every nook, every cranny within a four block radius, pretty much the whole neighborhood,” Christine says. “I met so many neighbors! When I was sure that no one in the area hadn’t heard about Phoebe, I met an older gentleman who lives alone and is disabled.” She talked to everyone to be sure they knew to look for the orange tabby.

Leave hints for the  cat’s senses

Christine put Phoebe’s feeder outside to make the sound of dropping a meal every night at 8:55 p.m. She left the door to her porch open to let out the smell of the familiar place, and she walked through the wooded area between her house and likely hiding places to make a scent trail that a cat could follow to get home.

She even left clothing outside to help enhance the scent trail. Alerting the neighborhood by social media meant that it was less likely to be removed by well-meaning neighbors.

Talk to neighbors

“Every time I was out walking, people would ask, ‘Hey have you found your cat?’ ‘No, I’m still looking.’ The neighbors were super-great”, Christine says.

Christine got lots of phone calls with potential Phoebe sightings, and she got to know the routines of the neighborhood cats, especially the surprising number of orange ones. “Every night at 6 I would get a call saying ‘I see a cat and it might be yours!’ so I would and run out there. As the month went on, I would ask them to snap a picture and send it to me first. And I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s that other cat again!’ He would go to the patio homes for the evening, then over by the gas station around midnight.”

About a week after Phoebe went missing, a resident in a nearby neighborhood righted an overturned wheelbarrow in her yard and something orange darted out. She contacted Christine the next day, but the cat was gone.

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CC image courtesy dlee13 on Flickr

Search with dogs

After three weeks of searching, Christine wondered whether she was limited by her own senses, and she wished she had a search dog who could smell Phoebe. It turned out there was a search and rescue dog for hire in the area.

The dog signaled in the back yard of a house nearby, and the dog handler said Phoebe had spent time there.

“The dog gave us hope. It said that Phoebe was still alive, still in the area,” she says.

Christine chose that location to set up a feeding station to try to draw Phoebe in.

Use a wildlife camera and humane trap

Christine rented a wildlife camera, and she set it up to point to the feeding station.

“While I was searching the neighborhood, I had seen 30 or 40 cats,” Christine says. “There were cats I’d never seen while searching coming up to the food bowl.”

A cat started to appear on the camera who looked a lot like Phoebe.

Christine set up a trap and settled in to wait.

“We caught a cat,” she says. “It was orange, and I went up to it. I was thinking, could it be her? It looked just like her, but it wasn’t her.”

orange cat in humane trap

CC Image courtesy of kisluvkis on flickr

The disappointment was painful: “I was sitting on the ground crying. That was a huge, huge blow. I thought, what are we doing?”

Refuse to give up

After four weeks of searching, Christine was disheartened.

“We decided early on we weren’t going to give up because of the stories you hear online where cats are found five or six months later,” she says.

She planned to print more flyers and ask people to look on porches and around vacant homes. A month after Phoebe went missing, the neighbor who had seen the orange cat under the overturned the wheelbarrow posted a message to the neighborhood website that she thought she had seen Phoebe.

Another neighbor saw the message and ran outside to get Christine’s phone number from one of the flyers and called her. When Christine arrived, she searched but couldn’t find anything.

“I thought as long as I was here, I should search around the other houses. Then I realized I was going to miss the 8:55 food drop and prayers on Facebook. I posted that I was out following up on a lead and would miss it, but for everyone to still send happy thoughts at 8:55,” Christine says.

She walked down the block shaking a cup of treats, looking in bushes and drains.

“Then I thought I heard a sound. ‘Phoebe!’ I called. A little face popped out from behind a plant. ‘Phoebe!’ I knelt down and reached out a hand with the treats, and she came running up to me,” Christine recalls. “And I thought, ‘What just happened? Was it really that easy?’”

She picked up Phoebe and realized that she still had a flashlight in one hand and her car keys buried in her pocket.

“I was holding her trying to figure out what to do,” she says. “You can hold her a little, but she starts to squirm.”

Christine abandoned her flashlight.

“She was clawing my back, and she was so, so skinny,” she says. “I got her into the car and locked the car like she could somehow get out if I didn’t lock the doors.”

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Christine started the car and saw that the clock read 8:55. All of the positive thinking from her friends had helped bring Phoebe home. So did a lot of neighbors all looking out for one little, orange cat.

About Julie McAlee: Unapologetic geek, Oxford comma supporter, and cat herder. Julie lives in Orlando with her husband and three rescued cats who are clearly the ones in charge. See Newton, Ashton, and Pierre’s feline adventures on her blog, Sometimes Cats Herd You.