Lost Cat, Lost Heart

(Courtesy Maxine Hillary)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

There are a lot of missing-pet posters on the telephone poles of Takoma Park, but the one at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway stands out. Where the standard is "Seen Our Cat?" scrawled in runny magic marker, this one features sharp production values, a clean design and a laminated coating. Then there's the eye-catching reward: $1,000 for any information leading to the return of a black male cat named Mugoddai.

And finally, on a poster that was tacked up in April, there is this notable date: "Missing Since December of 2003."

Maxine Hillary refuses to give up on Mugoddai.

Three and a half years after her pet scampered off into a cold December night, after almost $4,000 in newspaper ads, pet detectives, animal communicators, infrared cameras, a laminating machine and bilingual mass mailings, after chasing down hundreds of tips and checking in each month with several local animal shelters, after a hundred miles of walks and a three-hour stakeout in front of a storm drain, Hillary is still not ready to consign her beloved pet to the cold-case file.

"My assumption is that somehow he's making it," Hillary said. "I just can't believe he's dead. It just doesn't make sense to me."

This is not a tale of a crazy cat lady. ("I may be a crazy cat lady one day, but I'm not one yet," she said.) It's the story of a successful career woman with many interests who, admittedly, takes her responsibility as a pet owner further than most.

A lot further.

"To me, this is not about having a cat; it's about finding the one cat that I nurtured and loved since before his eyes opened," said Hillary, who works on food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I found myself walking around at 3 in the morning in the snow looking for him. Part of me said, 'This is crazy,' the other half said, 'Your pet is lost in a strange neighborhood.' He's my responsibility."

Hillary's love affair with Mugoddai began in 1997 on Guam, where she was working as a journalist and teacher. One day, an elderly neighbor asked her to investigate a mewling sound in his tin house. She found a sickly newborn kitten in a rainspout, abandoned by its mother.

"I said, 'Uncle, you have a cat,' " Hillary recalled. "He said, 'No, you do.' "

Hillary, who had no pets and didn't consider herself a particularly devoted animal person, nursed the kitten to health, giving him shots and pills and carrying him nearly constantly for a month.

"He needed so much care," she said. "I walked the floor with him like a baby."

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