Furry Friends Reunited – Saga
When pets go missing, it’s not just about losing a four-legged friend, it’s so much more – our animals are so often a much loved member of the family. That’s why, according to pet sleuth Tom Watkins, there is “nothing like the adrenaline rush of reuniting a pet with its owner.”
No animal is too small to be chased, from the hamster to the Chilean degu; Tom even stalks birds, such as the South American rhea, a flightless bird that could run faster than Usain Bolt, but was eventually cornered while in a bunker on a golf course in eight kilometers away.
Cats tend to be the most slippery due to their super flexible spines that allow them to wiggle freely (and their claws, of course), so if it’s just a matter of walking around, cats are the first. escape artists. But when it comes to stolen animals, almost all of them are dogs – as was the case last February in the much publicized theft of the French Bulldogs of American pop star Lady Gaga, Koji and Gustav.
The pandemic has seen the number of dog owners in the UK rise from 9.5 million in 2019 to 12 million, with the increase in dog naps being an unwanted side effect of the boom. Pedigrees have always been prized, but trendy hybrid designer breeds, such as cockapoos (a mix of cocker spaniel and poodle), also sell for high prices.
“There is a global industry that revolves around the theft, resale and breeding of dogs for large sums,” says Tom.
The son of a vicar and former Midlands police officer, Tom put his crime-fighting expertise to good use in 1999 by starting Animal Search UK. As Europe’s largest search and rescue service for missing pets, with a staff supported by over 86,000 “Pet Patrollers” (or volunteers), it tracks AWOL animals through sightings through its advertising network . Of its workload, 90% involve pets with the urge to travel, while the remaining 10% are stolen.
It is the latter that can be the most difficult, and sometimes the most dangerous, cases to resolve.
At 6ft 1in, the sturdy Tom isn’t easily scared and can only remember once when he felt unsafe during an operation. A reward had been offered for a lost dog; Tom acted as the go-between by retrieving the “found” dog from a very suspicious character and presenting him with the award.
“We could not prove that he had stolen it outside of his owner’s garden, despite information, so we had to play with the thief’s story to ensure his cooperation,” he explains. he. “It was absolutely necessary a delicate handling not to frighten him”, adds the ex-copper, who, as a civilian now, no longer has the power of arrest.
A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
Like the police, he relies on “intelligence” and informants in the form of his Pet Patrollers, to whom he sends email alerts about missing animals in their area.
“Cases of theft will normally have already been recorded by the police, with a crime number issued, so we will contact the officer involved if we get any useful information,” says Tom.
Over the past three years, Animal Search UK has achieved an average success rate of 70%. Since its first official records in 2012, it has recorded more than 284,000 cases, including around 10,000 repeat offenders – pets that go missing more than once. The initial AS service is free: registration in the database, which searches for potential matches and ads on the website containing up to ten photos, as well as a toll-free 24-hour telephone line for cookies that spotted a domestic animal from a poster.
Fees are charged for additional services: a £ 18 Facebook sponsored ad in the owner’s neighborhood, a ‘Missing’ poster and flyer ad campaign and real background research – boots on the ground in the neighborhood from the owner, usually paid for by pet insurance.
AS’s research base in Hereford has a rescue vehicle marked with more than 40 pieces of equipment, including thermal cameras to detect a source of body heat in the dark, a microchip scanner, a dictaphone with a recording of its owner’s voice to lure a pet out of their hiding place, as well as pet treats.
“I have always felt vulnerable in the police force because I don’t like violence,” says Tom. “But I still wanted to help people somehow. What I love about my job is that we can potentially change someone’s life by reuniting them with their pet because they are such loving companions. Our flyers and posters have our 0800 number, so members of the public with sensitive or sad news – such as a pet killed in a traffic accident – can call anonymously. For an owner, “not knowing” is the worst thing, and if we can get an answer, it can be a comfort or a closure. “
After almost 22 years, Tom has become quite the animal behaviorist. Dogs, he says, are more likely to stick around, unless they get excited and slip off their leash. Yet despite their reputation for escape, cats are more survival-oriented than dogs. “Cats are drawn to food, shelter and water, so we’re likely to find them in built-up areas where humans are, while dogs run around trying to find their owner,” Tom says. .
Like any good TV sleuth, Tom has a loyal sidekick – Search Team Leader Andrew, 63, who joined AS two years ago. Tom and Andrew’s double act was a hit a few months ago after a client took her cat Milo on vacation with her and recklessly let him out of the car for a toilet break at a gas station Hampshire Motorway. When Milo ran away, his owner Suki almost had kittens (forgive the pun). Still, Tom and Andrew had a hunch he wouldn’t go far. After searching the complex and the local village, they received a call a month later. Milo had been seen “sneaking around the parking lot” and was safely captured with a tempting piece of fast food.
The Lady Gaga saga also had a happy ending when she recovered her dogs unharmed. Although his dog walker Ryan Fischer was shot by thieves, he is making a full recovery.
Tom admits his “only remaining ambition” is to see Animal Search UK rolled out to other countries, and he’s skeptical of calls to arm dog walkers in the US after the Gaga affair.
“It’s drastic,” he says, suggesting “fewer OTT measures, such as walking your dog in daylight and varying your routine.” There’s a phenomenon I’ve named “clip and run,” where thieves attach a leash to a pet – often before they’re noticed by the owner, who can focus on their cell phone. People need to be on guard.
It has its own success story in the case of Abbey Clancy’s cat Maggie, model, TV presenter and footballer’s wife. The feline wandered away for a week in 2013 from her mansion in London’s lavish Belsize Park and was found a mile or two outside Camden Town. Abbey was pining so much that she distracted him from her Come dance strictly practical, but with Maggie back in her designer basket, Abbey won the contest – showing that a pet is the key to the well-being of many people.
“Anyone who has a pet will understand the saying that it is part of the family,” says Tom. “A photo of my first dog, also called Maggie, still has pride of place on my desk at Animal Search UK, even though it has been 20 years since she died at the age of 17. She was my best friend throughout my childhood – and you never forget her. that unwavering love.
To register a missing or found pet, visit animalsearchuk.co.uk. General information: 01244 355247
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