Jennifer Carl stepped out of the gas station bathroom and gasped at what she didn’t see.

Her car was gone.

“I thought maybe the car was on the other side of the bathroom,” said Carl, as she described that January day at a New Jersey Speedway on her way back home to D.C.

But nope. No Jeep Cherokee on the other side of the bathroom. And that meant, no Willow.

“I was in a total panic,” said Carl of when she realized her rental car had been stolen, along with her beloved calico cat, Willow, who had made the journey to visit Carl’s mom in New Jersey with her. Everything was in the rental car: her computer, her phone, her clothes, her best friend. “I screamed pretty loudly. … I cried for her.”

Carl, 33, had visited her mom for the holidays. When her mom went into remission after a bout with cancer, and after Carl took a coronavirus test that came back negative, they decided it would be safe and therapeutic for a visit. Willow, the fluffy 19-pounder who gave everyone comfort, was packed into her hot pink carrier and whisked along for the trip.

They were returning to Capitol Hill on Jan. 7 when Carl needed to make a quick bathroom stop. She parked outside the gas station restroom, put her mask on and hopped out without bringing anything else, not even a coat. She left the car running and gave the key fob a click to lock it. Only, it didn’t lock. And in the few minutes it took to use the restroom, someone made off with the car.

She called the police and some good Samaritans helped her return to her mother’s house. She tried to piece her life back together — she got a new phone, computer, clothes. But what about that huge cat, who has been by her side for 11 years, ever since she found her stuck in a tree in Jersey City?

“At first I felt completely hopeless, but my post on Facebook asking for help with finding her was being widely shared. By Saturday, I started posting on every lost pet and social media outlet,” she said.

Hey everyone, my beloved cat Willow was stolen in a rental car on my drive back home to DC from NJ on Thursday. Please...

Posted by Jennifer Kathryn Carl on Saturday, January 9, 2021

It was the first thing the pet finder she hired told her to do — a social media campaign, D.C. politics style. This was familiar territory: Carl works at a political software company. She knows messaging.

Wait. A pet finder? What is that?

“I recently found out that I could read animals,” said the pet finder, Nancy Mello, 39. She’s also known as a psychic, a medium, a clairvoyant, whatever you want to call it. She lives in — wait for it — Mystic, Conn.

And since March, she’s done fewer readings from people wondering if their boyfriend was having an affair or wanting to talk to their dead grandma, and has done more work helping find missing animals. There was Olaf the cat in Jacksonville, Fla., Blinky the cat in Dubai and Rudy the mini-mule in Upstate New York, along with 10 dogs and another handful of cats. “Olaf was a really big one because he was missing for more than three months,” she said.

She charges $65 to help find a pet and estimates her success rate is between 65 and 75 percent.

Part of what she does is common sense — she helps with canvassing, advertising, social media. She also understands animal behavior after growing up on a farm in central California.

“With Willow, the first thing I told Jen to do was push on social media,” Mello said.

With Mello’s help, Carl posted her pleas online, asking people in New Jersey to be on the lookout for the car and the cat. A local paper and TV station picked up her story. The TikTok she made got tens of thousands of views.

@jenkcarl

Beloved 19lb cat stolen in rental car at the Speedway in Harrison, NJ. Please help Thank you @nancy.mello for the huge boost #FYP #catsoftiktok

♬ original sound - JenCarl

People in New Jersey started reaching out, volunteering to put up fliers and help search.

Five days after it was stolen, police found the abandoned rental car, dumped in a neighborhood near Newark. No sign of Willow or her carrier.

Then, the next day, a breakthrough: a neighbor called police reporting some of Carl’s stuff dumped in a yard, along with the bright pink cat carrier, empty.

That’s where Mello’s “reading” of the cat came in, she said.

“Immediately, when I connected with Willow, I knew for sure she was alive,” Mello said. “She said she was terrified. I saw her in someone’s house.”

Mello said she told the cat to get outside, just get outside the house. Willow, who has obtained some of her girth through a special diet of fresh fish and deliberate inactivity, kept complaining about the dry food her captors were feeding her, Mello said. “ ‘Just get outside, Willow,’ I kept telling her. ‘Make yourself seen outside and Jen will find you.’ ”

Carl, in the meantime, was fielding an army of helpers who saw her story. Cat ladies, rescuers, volunteers who trap and neuter feral cats came offering help. On Jan. 14, a week after Willow was stolen, Carl assembled a group and they set up a trap in the neighborhood where the carrier was found, baiting it with Willow’s favorite, sardines and salmon.

“Except I was afraid she wouldn’t go into the trap,” Carl worried, noting that the trap door was probably too small to allow the full glory of Willow’s 19 pounds.

“Miraculously, within an hour, she was spotted by a volunteer in someone’s backyard. She is very hard to miss,” Carl said.

She asked the homeowners if she could go into the backyard and call to her. “After we were very quiet for a while she darted back out again, tail up, smelling all around.”

When Willow ran into a crawl space, Carl followed and thrust a piece of salmon inside. Willow’s fur had a scent of cigarette smoke.

“She smelled my hand and let out a few cries of recognition and started purring almost immediately,” she said. “I sat there with her for another half-hour or so, until she felt safe enough to come out to let me pick her up and take her home.”

So far, there’s been no arrest in the case, though police have some gas station camera footage and a doorbell cam where the car was dumped. Carl and Willow are back on Capitol Hill now. They have no plans to travel anytime soon.

“I’m still so blown away by all of the support I received,” she said. “I think folks have really needed a story like this to show the capacity we have as a society to still work together to do some good.”

Mello, meanwhile, is back at work. A cockatiel lost in Spokane, Wash., since December is currently bedeviling her. “A cockatiel. It’s a needle in a haystack,” she said. “That bird is my Achilles’ heel.”

The bird’s name? Willow.

Correction: The photo credit on the top image in this story has been changed to Amy Faliks.

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