Meet the Pet FBI: A Group That Uses the Internet to Reunite Lost Pets with Their Families


When a black cat turned up on a woman’s doorstep in Worthington, Ohio, she did everything she could to find the lost kitty’s family. She contacted area shelters and put up posters around the neighborhood, hoping to hear from someone who was looking for their pet.

She also took her cat rescue effort online. Pet FBI, which stands for "found by Internet," is a database dedicated to helping reunite pets lost and found in Ohio with their families. The woman had almost given up on finding the cat’s family when she got a call from a man in New Jersey. He had moved out of state from Reynoldsburg five months earlier, and he had lost his beloved cat, Midnight.

The man, too, had almost given up when he found a description of Midnight on the Pet FBI website. After seeing a photograph, he drove 500 miles to retrieve his lost cat.

"It is still a mystery how Midnight ended up in Worthington after wandering away from home in Reynoldsburg," says Maresa Fanelli, Pet FBI founder. "If only they could talk."

Just goes to show that when looking for a lost pet, persistence pays off.

Since Fanelli founded the nonprofit organization in the late 1990s, Pet FBI has helped thousands of lost pets find their way home. The database allows people to report and post descriptions of lost or found pets. It is searchable by timeframe, type of animal, and location. Since 1998, more than 39,000 reports have been submitted. Approximately one-third of the dogs and one-fourth of the cats have been reported as reunited.

Fanelli was inspired to take the traditional "lost pet" posters approach online after she witnessed a chance reunion between a lost cat and family. Her neighbor had been feeding a stray cat for several months when, by chance, her son saw a poster in another part of town with a picture that resembled the cat.

"Sure enough, it was a match," Fanelli says. "Just around that time, the Internet was taking off, and I thought, what a perfect application! Why not set up a database for lost and found pets?"

Through her work with Pet FBI, Fanelli has learned some hard truths about animal rescue — and about the animals who end up in shelters. She did not realize that many of the cats and dogs in shelters were not merely lost but that many of them never had homes at all. She was also shocked to learn that a high percentage of these animals — particularly the cats and kittens — would never be given a chance at life.

"When I first founded Pet FBI I had some pretty naïve notions," Fanelli says. "I thought that all the dogs and cats in shelters were strays and that someone somewhere was desperate to find them."

When Fanelli learned the dire consequences of pet overpopulation, she expanded Pet FBI’s mission. In addition to reuniting pets with their families, Fanelli and the group’s dedicated volunteers also work to provide spay/neuter assistance to disadvantaged people and caretakers of feral cat colonies.

Since starting the spay/neuter program in 2002, Pet FBI has implemented or subsidized approximately 9,000 surgeries. Fanelli would like to do more, but acquiring enough funding and resources to meet growing needs remains challenging.

"The need is so great and the resources are so limited, and there are never enough trappers, foster parents, or homes for all the kittens," Fanelli says.

Based on feedback from Pet FBI users, when looking for a lost pet, Fanelli recommends taking the search into the community as well as online. Posters are effective — but "they should be highly visible and there should be many of them."

"Unfortunately, there is no one single source of information, so if you lose a pet you should be very aggressive and very persistent and avail yourself of every possible resource," Fanelli adds.

This includes regularly checking in with local shelters. Many shelters are understaffed, so they might not rush to contact you even if you’ve reported your pet as missing. This is not because they don’t care, but simply because they cannot keep track of all the animals that enter their facilities. The holding period for strays may only be one to two days at some shelters, so it pays to visit early and often.

Also, Fanelli says people should not assume their lost pets will just find their way home on their own. Touching stories of lost pets randomly turning up at home are often reported in the news, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

"Do not assume that if your pet is lost it will come running to you," Fanelli says. "This is especially true of cats, but dogs will also keep a low profile out of fear if they are stressed."

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