New Way to Call for Missing Pets
Owners Spread Net Via Recorded Phone Alerts, Other Modern Tools

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

When Lucy, an Australian shepherd-husky mix, went missing from her Mount Pleasant neighborhood a month ago, her owners reached for every resource in the modern pet owner's playbook.

Dan Wood and Sarah Darnell printed fliers, posted messages on Craigslist, launched a Web site ( with an interactive map plotting where Lucy had been seen and started a blog to share details of the search.

And just when they thought they couldn't possibly do more, a friend told them about

Within hours, 10,000 households in the District and Montgomery County knew that Lucy had disappeared. They knew she had one brown ear and one speckled ear and likes to have her belly rubbed. And they knew whom to call if they spotted Lucy.

The same phone technology that makes political campaign robocalls is now spreading the word about lost pets.

"There's only so much you can do to make a flier jump out at people," Wood said. "They're walking their dog, walking to the Metro and not really paying attention to the stuff that's plastered all over the telephone poles. But a phone call stands out." is one of several services that harness technology to help people find their pets. The Arizona-based allows people to post for free information about missing or found animals. It has links to 9,000 animal shelters, including ones in the D.C. region. is a smaller, more personal venture started by Linda Fields of Milford, Pa., in 1998 to help owners.

A small industry has grown around recovering lost pets, said Scott Giacoppo, chief programs officer for the Washington Humane Society. "If their intentions are good -- that is, to reunite the pet with the family -- that's great," he said, but added that people should make sure they are not being taken in.

Giacoppo said people should also remember that old-fashioned methods can yield results. Owners of lost pets should check with shelters, he said, and make their fliers stand out by printing them on fluorescent paper. Pets should have ID tags and be microchipped, he said.

A friend paid the $875 for calls made on Lucy's behalf, since Wood and Darnell are starving law students.

Margaret O'Donnell of Jessup credits the FindToto robocall service with helping to bring home Harley, her 3-year-old German shepherd, after he got loose in November. She said the service had an unexpected benefit: helping her get to know her neighbors, who still ask about Harley.

Tim Krukowski of Leesburg used the service to find Buddha, his German shepherd-Doberman pinscher mix, after the dog slipped away from a friend's home last month. Krukowski was out with a dog tracker he'd hired when he received a call that Buddha had been seen on a golf course not far from where he ran off.

"Our success stories range from a dog that was found in six minutes to cats that have been gone for six months," said Colleen Busch, a spokeswoman for the California-based company. "We have even helped find a wallaby and a goat."

Not everyone is thrilled with the service, which is exempt from the federal do-not-call law, designed to bar telemarketers from flooding folks with calls. The service is exempt because it is not selling anything, but a company spokeswoman said instructions at the end of the recorded message tell people how to restrict calls.

A Bethesda woman who lives in one of the neighborhoods where the FindToto messages were left said community e-mail lists are a less-intrusive way to get the word out. "There are so many lost pets, I would find the [phone calls] a little invasive," she said. She declined to be identified because, she said, she values her privacy along with her peace and quiet. is the brainchild of Dustin Sterlino, who came up with the idea in 2007 after his cat, Cutie McPretty, went missing. He blanketed his Brentwood, Calif., neighborhood with fliers but thought how helpful it would be to be able to call his neighbors. Cutie McPretty was never found, but since was launched, more than 900 owners have been reunited with their cats, dogs and even turtles (although how far those got is unclear).

Would Lucy be next? On Tuesday, D.C. animal control officers got a call about a stray dog frolicking among the embassies along Massachusetts Avenue NW. When officers Ted Deppner and Jerome Smith got there, they spotted the dog but weren't able to catch her. Back at the office, they thumbed through missing-dog reports, found a match with Lucy's description and called Darnell.

Early Wednesday, one month to the day Lucy disappeared, Darnell ventured out with a juicy chicken to entice her if she was spotted. No need: Within minutes, Lucy came running, ignored the chicken and started licking Darnell's face.

In the end, it was not the robocalls but good, old-fashioned canine police work that paid off.

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