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Saving Summer Pets


Pat Lillis says she knows why people lose their pets: "Stupidity, stupidity and more stupidity."


Pat Lillis posts a flier in East Hampton, N.Y., for yet another lost pet.

By WARREN ST. JOHN
June 18, 2006

AS surely as the Jaguars and the Hummers, as reliably as traffic jams and lines at the ice cream parlor, they start showing up in the Hamptons every June: fliers � on telephone poles, at grocery stores and cafes � bearing the heart-rending images of lost pets. Fluffy, Buddy, Scrim and Shaw, Remy and Boomer; dogs, cats and rabbits, all gone.

Locals describe it as an annual epidemic: pets that have spent most of their lives in apartment buildings in the city, with doors, elevators, doormen and leashes between them and trouble, catch a glimpse of the wide world outside their new country homes. And like that, they're off.

"It's too many to count," said Jeff McMahon, the owner of Town & Country Photo in East Hampton, which prints color fliers for desperate pet owners every season. "Summer's when the tourists come and lose their pets."

After the neighborhood has been cased, the pound called, after cornfields have been scoured, rewards offered, and after the kids have been put to bed in tears, some sympathetic local will eventually let visiting pet owners onto a valuable bit of local wisdom. When a pet is missing out East, the first person you call is Pat, Pet Detective of the Hamptons.

And when these desperate souls take the locals' advice � as they inevitably do � a rugged smoker's voice with an Irish accent will answer the phone.

"Pull yourself together," the voice will growl, with a fierceness that will cow the most self-assured Nick & Tony's regular. "And do what you're told."

Pat would be one Pat Lillis, an iron-tongued Irish woman originally from County Cork who has spent the last 17 years in the Hamptons helping to find and care for lost pets. In that time, Ms. Lillis estimates, she has found hundreds of lost pets, and not a few lost owners whose pets have been turned in to her. She keeps meticulous records of each case in her East Hampton home and says her success rate at bringing pets in from the cold is around 60 percent.

Her biggest nemesis along the way has been what she calls "the retarded public," mostly city dwellers whose carelessness leads to the annual epidemic of lost pets in the Hamptons.

"Stupidity, stupidity and more stupidity," Ms. Lillis said, between puffs of a Merit Ultra Lights cigarette as she rolled through East Hampton in her silver 1984 Volvo wagon on Wednesday afternoon, on the way to post fliers for a lost cat. "Those are three reasons pets go missing in the world."

On the seat beside her, next to a container of cat food, Ms. Lillis had evidence to back up her point: a flier, posted throughout Bridgehampton last week, for a missing terrier-Chihuahua mix named Little Joe. The dog, it turned out, belonged to the teenage children of the artist Julian Schnabel. Ms. Lillis didn't know who he was � or much care. She only knew that on the flier, which she now shook contemptuously her hand, 19-year-old Vito Schnabel had spelled Chihuahua "jiwawa," and that when she'd shown up at his house to volunteer to help him look for the dog, the young man had an open bottle of beer in his hand.

"Born and reared in New York City and can't spell Chihuahua," she said, shaking her head forlornly. "And drinking! Don't get me wrong � I love drinking. Everyone should drink. But there's a time and a place for it. When your four-pound dog goes missing, it's not the time to be slurping beer." Ms. Lillis was so unimpressed with the Schnabels' effort that she took control of the search-and-rescue operation herself.

She pressed the Schnabel children to find a color photo of their dog, which she then used on a flier. On June 9, five days after he disappeared, Little Joe was returned by a neighbor.

Vito Schnabel said that at first he thought Ms. Lillis was "out of her mind." But soon, he said, he became a believer.

"Pat was very helpful," he said. "She was very technical about her work."

Ms. Lillis is a volunteer; she owes local veterinarians some $30,000 in spaying and neutering costs, she said, and scrapes together a living by looking after people's pets when they go away. She calls her pet rescue operation Elsa's Ark, after her mother. The organization is a loosely formed group of volunteers like Ms. Lillis, many recruited after she had rescued their pets. They support her efforts by donating food or fliers and by joining the occasional search party. They also leave food out for strays, in locations they identify with code words, lest any animal control officers overhear.

Every moment a pet spends loose in the wild presents a threat, Ms. Lillis said. Cars and trains can be deadly. Declawed cats and city dogs face the prospect of starvation. Animals picked up by local animal control officers are hardly much safer; the East Hampton pound keeps them for 10 days before putting them up for adoption or possibly euthanizing them. Ms. Lillis said the thought of animals in such desperate straits keeps her agitated.

Ask her how she's doing on any given day, and she'll likely give her standard response: "I'm barking and growling, and snapping and snarling."

In her time in the Hamptons, Ms. Lillis said, she has seen the full range of reactions to lost pets. There was the man who lost his Jack Russell and flew in a professional dog tracker from Atlanta with a pack of hounds. And there is the couple whose home answering machine message still pleads for information about their lost dog, a full three years after it disappeared.

But there are also those who seem more interested in going to the beach than in looking for their lost animals. Last summer, one woman called off her search prematurely, in Ms. Lillis's eyes, because she claimed she had been attacked by blue jays.

Worst of all, Ms. Lillis said, are those who say they are relying on a psychic to find their pets.

"No psychics!" Ms. Lillis shouted, pounding her fist on the dashboard. "You don't sit on your delicate bum and dial 1-900 if you lost your dog or your cat!"

Ms. Lillis said that in her experience, people careless enough to let a pet get loose will do nearly everything wrong when trying to find it.

That was the case last summer with a man named John Chachas, an investment banker from Manhattan who had rented a home in Bridgehampton with his family. Mr. Chachas and his wife were at a dinner party when the call came in from his young daughter back at the house: Buddy the cat was missing.

Mr. Chachas said he had a sinking feeling. His 7-year-old son had begged that they leave the cat in the city because he was afraid the animal might get lost, but Mr. Chachas ignored his pleas. Now this. "I felt so guilty," Mr. Chachas said.

Mr. Chachas and his wife went into crisis mode. They left dozens of opened cans of cat food around the neighborhood, knocked on doors, made fliers offering a $5,000 reward, drove their Denali through neighboring cornfields in search of Buddy, and left on all the lights around the house. The next afternoon, on no sleep, Mr. Chachas prepared to give his son the news that Buddy would not be coming back. That's when a local pet store owner suggested he call Ms. Lillis. Mr. Chachas, a managing director at his bank, soon found himself taking orders.

"She said, 'You're well intended � now go undo everything you've done,' " Mr. Chachas said.

Ms. Lillis ordered the Chachases to scrap the reward. A rich man doesn't need the money, she explained, and a poor man who spots Buddy will see instead a bag of money with fur on it. He'll chase after the cat, likely terrifying it, and then he'll hoard news of the sighting in hopes of getting the money later.

"Rewards are useless," she said.

Next: the fliers. A local man whose cat Ms. Lillis found now volunteers to design fliers for lost pets according to Ms. Lillis's strict specifications. She demands a minimalist approach: the word "Lost" above a large color photo of the animal, with a phone number below.

"We don't need to know the pet's life story," she said. "And in the picture, not the Christmas tree and the pet, not the child and the pet. Just the pet."

Ms. Lillis demands that fliers be affixed to trees and telephone polls with a minimum of 48 staples, so they can't be torn down.

Next: Ms. Lillis ordered all those cans of cat food picked up, and told the Chachases instead to buy a can of Figaro cat food, an especially aromatic brand, she said. Turn off all the lights around the house but one, Ms. Lillis instructed. Then place Buddy's litter box under that one light, and open the can of Figaro � loudly.

"There's not a cat in the world that doesn't know the sound of a can opener," Ms. Lillis said.

Next: tell the kids to be quiet. No playing outside. She didn't want Buddy spooked. And Ms. Lillis wanted hourly updates; she said she would adjust her plan according to circumstances. If and when Buddy finally showed up, Ms. Lillis said, she wanted Mr. Chachas to get down on the floor, and open the door slowly � no sudden movements.

Mr. Chachas said he was skeptical, but desperate.

"We did everything we were told," he said.

At around 7 that evening, Mr. Chachas collapsed in a chair and dozed off. A few minutes later, his wife woke him. Buddy was outside.

Mr. Chachas got down on the floor as instructed, crawled to the door and opened it. Buddy slinked in, and summer was saved.

"Pat had the psychology of a cat, like she was one herself," Mr. Chachas said on Wednesday. As for Buddy, Mr. Chachas said, he'll be staying in the city this summer.

"He's on lockdown," he said.

Ms. Lillis said she was bracing for a busy summer, and because word was out about her operation online, she was helping people with lost pets all over the country. And she had this advice for pet owners everywhere.

"Don't bring your pet on vacation � it's criminal," she said, before launching into an unprintable tirade.

"Do you see how it rises me?" Ms. Lillis asked eventually. "That's what I live with."
 

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