FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - More than 20 years ago, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" descended upon movie theaters, with Jim Carrey portraying the cartoonish, wisecracking south Florida private investigator specializing in finding missing animals.
A couple of Thursdays ago, Jamie Katz, a decidedly serious-minded south Florida private investigator specializing in finding missing animals, sat in her apartment fielding a steady stream of client calls, texts and Facebook messages after having just closed the case of an AWOL parrot.
The African grey parrot, Oscar Gray, had turned up in the hands of a woman who ostensibly runs a bird rescue and wouldn't release Oscar to his owner. Six days after Oscar flew the coop, the owner, at wit's end, heeded the advice of a parrot lost-and-found registry and turned to Katz.
"I had gotten to the point where I could not get the woman to turn my bird over, or even let me see if it was him. We were playing cat and mouse with this bird," recalled Liz Kohout, the parrot's owner. "We needed a negotiator."
Katz, 36, is one of those people who seems to know everyone, and it turned out she shared a mutual friend with the bird rescuer and leveraged that to negotiate the parrot's freedom. Kohout said that once Katz took over, things moved fast: Oscar was home the same day.
Oscar Gray was the latest of about 150 animals Katz says she has helped return to their owners since hanging out her shingle less than two years ago. But she doesn't have many colleagues to confer with about the ups or downs. Though lots of people pursue animal sleuthing part-time or as a hobby, Katz and others in this unusual business estimate that there are only about 10 full-time pet detectives across the country.
But even with little competition, full-timers say it can be important to distinguish yourself to drum up work. Atlanta sleuth Kim Freeman specializes in finding lost cats - sometimes with the assistance of her "tracking cat," Henry, who she believes is the world's only feline with that job title.
"I trained him using cat fur, to find it and point it out," said Freeman, who studied under the pioneer of pet investigation, Kat Albrecht, who has written books on the topic and trained hundreds of aspiring pet detectives.
Freeman said she decided to dive headlong into the career - with a focus on missing cats - when, not long after taking a training course from Albrecht, her own cat, Mr. Purr, went missing. "Boy, what a feeling of panic that was," Freeman recalled. "I was able to use the techniques I'd learned from Kat to find him. If I'd listened to people's advice, my cat would've died in the storage container he was trapped in."
Direct experience with a lost animal is a running theme in pet detectives' backgrounds. Albrecht, who lives in British Columbia, was a police officer and bloodhound handler when her own bloodhound, A.J., went missing in 1996. She decided to try using another search and rescue dog to track A.J. It worked, spawning a career for Albrecht, and later a professional field.
For Katz, the impetus was a cat. She was working as a licensed private investigator three years ago when she began helping a friend look for her vanished kitty. Katz said she was deeply unimpressed when the private investigators her friend had hired, who had promised to use tracking dogs to locate the animal, never showed up. A neighbor eventually found the cat, but the situation left an impression on Katz, a lifelong animal lover and rescuer.
"I wondered if dogs can really find lost pets," she said. "And if they can, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Uncovering the truth
Back at the kitchen table that doubles as her desk, Katz sat petting one of her tracking dogs, Gable, and tossing a tennis ball to the other, Fletcher, both of whom use their keen noses to follow a missing animal's scent from its last known location. Two nonworking dogs, Arabella and Vega, snoozed in the bedroom.
Katz's cellphone rang again. It was from an elderly woman whose cats had gone missing when she was hospitalized. A caretaker was supposed to have been looking after them, and the caretaker's daughter was supposed to have been overseeing this arrangement. When the woman mentioned that her cats had been missing for 16 months, Katz's eyes grew wide.
Katz decided to help the woman without charging her. But after consulting a database that only licensed private investigators can access and making some calls, she started to think the daughter's story might not add up. Katz called back and gently broached this possibility with the woman, who quickly replied, "You have hit the nail on the head."
And that's another vital pet detective skill: sniffing out baloney.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this involved Sheppie, a dog who had been missing for two months when his owner called Katz. He said his wife told him that she was swimming at a park beach in Key Biscayne when a man kidnapped Sheppie. Katz found the story sketchy.
After working the case pretty hard, Katz was stymied - and still suspicious. She began researching to see if anything notable had happened at the beach and a nearby golf course during the afternoon in question. Katz found news articles reporting that a crocodile that lives in a pond at the golf course had eaten a dog that day.
That dog was Sheppie. The wife had been riding her bike from the beach to the golf course and didn't have Sheppie on a leash, despite multiple signs warning about the presence of the crocodile. He was chasing birds at the edge of the pond when the croc snatched him.
The wife didn't want her family to know about the dog's gruesome demise. When her husband confronted her with the news from Katz, his wife denied it. At Katz's suggestion, he asked again two days later. This time, she confessed.