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Susan Orlean

Lost Dog

On August 6, 2003, Stephen Morris parked his car at the Atlanta History Center, expecting to spend half an hour or so edifying himself and his nephew on the particulars of the Civil War. It was the beginning of what would turn out to be a very bad day. At the time, though, everything seemed fine. Morris, a sinewy guy in his fifties with a scramble of light-brown hair and the deliberative air of a non-practicing academic, was at work on his doctoral dissertation -- a biography of William Young, a seventeenth-century composer in the court of the Archduke of Innsbruck. Morris's teenage nephew was visiting from British Columbia, and Morris had taken a break to show him the highlights of Atlanta. Morris's wife, Beth Bell, a compact, gray-haired, dry-witted epidemiologist whose specialty is hepatitis, was at her job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she is a senior investigator; that day, she was knee-deep in a disease outbreak among attendees of jam-band concerts.

Morris found parking at the History Center easily enough -- the open-air three-story garage is small but had plenty of available spaces. A sign above the entrance reads, "Help Us Keep Your Vehicle Safe While You Are Here. Please Remove All Valuables From Vehicle," but the History Center is in Buckhead, a prosperous, bosky section of the city where people and vehicles are generally out of harm's way. Morris and Bell's car -- a dinged-up but serviceable 1999 Volvo station wagon -- was not the sort to attract much attention anyway. The only noteworthy thing about the car was that Morris and Bell's dog, Coby -- a black Border collie with a false hip and a missing tooth -- was in it, and so was a rather nice viola da gamba that Morris was looking after in his capacity as a rental program director of the Viola da Gamba Society of America.

August 6th was a hot, soupy Wednesday in Atlanta. On Coby's behalf, Morris left the car in the History Center garage with its doors locked but with the engine running and the air-conditioner on -- a bit of animal husbandry that is not unheard of in Southern climates if you leave your dog in a parked car and don't want to return to find him cooked. Uncooked dog notwithstanding, an unoccupied but idling car in a relatively empty parking garage might present to a certain kind of person an irresistible temptation. But if anyone saw such a person in the vicinity, he didn't make an impression. Meanwhile, Morris and his nephew wandered through the cool, white halls of the museum, did a quick appraisal of the War Between the States, and then got ready to leave. At first, they thought they had misremembered where they'd parked the car, but after looking through the whole garage they came back to where they were sure they had left it. The Volvo, the viola da gamba, and the dog were gone. All that marked the spot was a glittering blue sprinkle of broken glass.

Around eighty cars are stolen in greater Atlanta every day -- a steady but not exceptional amount, putting the city's number of disappearing cars a little behind Houston's and a little ahead of Seattle's. Most of the thefts reward the perpetrator with, in addition to a car, nothing more than a couple of cassette tapes, some fast-food flotsam, and a clutch of exhausted air fresheners. Stephen Morris and Beth Bell's car, though, offered its unusual booty of dog and viola da gamba. The best guess is that the thief never even noticed; he was probably too excited about finding a car with a key in the ignition to take stock of its contents. Morris and Bell were upset about losing the viola da gamba -- it was a fine reproduction of a fifteenth-century instrument and worth thousands of dollars -- and they were not happy about losing their car, but those were trifling concerns compared with how they felt about losing their dog. In the report that Morris filed as soon as police arrived at the History Center, he didn't even mention the viola da gamba, but he brought up Coby's kidnapping a number of times.

Generally speaking, people love their dogs. Morris and Bell may be particularly devoted to Coby because they have nursed him through a variety of misadventures. They first spotted him at a sheepherding event nearly seven years ago when they were out bicycling in the Georgia countryside, but the breeder had promised the puppy to someone else, then decided that she wanted him for herself. Only after a day of negotiating did Coby end up with Morris and Bell. By the time he was two, he had full-blown dysplasia in his hips and needed a four-thousand-dollar surgery to replace one of them. At two and a half, he busted a tooth playing catch. Sometime later, he caught a stick wrong, and it jammed down his throat a few millimetres from his windpipe. Coby's vet likes to describe him as a dog with nine lives. In this life, anyway, Coby is a bushy-haired, prick-eared dog with tensed shoulders, an arresting stare, and an avid fetch-centric attitude. His dedication to retrieving bounceable rubber objects is so inexhaustible that it is exhausting. He has worn a deep, dusty path in Bell and Morris's yard between where they like to stand when they throw his Kong toy and where he likes to lie in wait for it. Morris has, thanks to Coby, developed a hot pitching arm and a firm way of saying, "That will do, Coby," when he runs out of steam.

So here was the problem: a dog on foot can travel at about five miles an hour, but a dog in a car can travel at sixty or seventy miles an hour. If Coby had jumped out of the car and walked away from the History Center, a perimeter of his possible whereabouts could have been plotted according to his likely pace. If he was still in the car -- well, there was no way of knowing where he might be. Within an hour or two, he could have been in Alabama or South Carolina or Tennessee. Epidemiological science was of some help. That evening, a number of Bell's C.D.C. colleagues joined Morris, who had set out to search the thirty-three acres of the History Center and the surrounding area. "We were in the hypothesis-generation stage of the investigation," Bell said recently. "We first developed the hypothesis that Coby might still be at the History Center." Bell advanced the theory that the guy who had taken the car did not want a dog, and that it was likely that as soon as he noticed Coby he let him out. Her secondary theory was that as soon as the thief broke the window to get in, Coby had escaped. Both theories led to the Tullie Smith Farm -- an antebellum homestead on the grounds of the History Center, where maidens in muslin churn butter and dip candles, and which, in the interest of total authenticity, also features a small herd of sheep. Border collies love sheep, so the crew of epidemiologists headed straight for the farm, and went there the next day, too. "We looked around and didn't see Coby, but we stopped everyone who passed us," one of the searchers told me. "We got some interesting responses. We approached one older woman and asked her if she had seen the dog, and she said no. Then she said that she had just lost her family and she asked us if we'd seen them." The search party hung some hastily made posters on light poles; they checked around trash cans and Dumpsters; they flagged down cars driving past on West Paces Ferry Road; they crisscrossed the History Center's Mary Howard Gilbert Memorial Quarry Garden and its Victorian Playhouse and its Swan Woods Trail. They searched until eleven on Wednesday, and most of the day Thursday, but there was no dog, and no sign of the dog.

In all sorts of circumstances, dogs go missing. They slip out the door with trick-or-treaters; they burrow under fences; they take off after unattainable squirrels and pigeons. Some dogs are repeat offenders. Recently, I heard the story of Huey and Dewey -- Shetland sheepdog siblings living in Massachusetts -- who took exception to a visit to the veterinarian and ran off. Huey was recovered a quarter mile from the clinic by a dog-search volunteer after forty-three days, but Dewey was gone for good. A year and a half after that, Huey took exception to a visit to a kennel and was found eighty-nine days later a few feet from where she'd escaped. Sometimes a dog, presumed irretrievable, unexpectedly reappears: a certain Doberman pinscher from San Francisco, capable of standing on its head, vanished for three years; his owner finally located him when she overheard a waiter in a restaurant discussing his roommate's new dog, a Doberman with a knack for standing on its head. According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, there are sixty-five million pet dogs in this country, and an estimated ten million of them go astray every year. About half of those are returned. Others end up in new homes under assumed names, or are killed by cars; most, though, disappear without a trace.

Dog-identification contraptions are a gigantic subset of the gigantic $34.3 billion-a-year pet-care industry. Aside from tags shaped like hearts and stars and hydrants in aluminum, gold, steel, and rhinestone, there is a brisk business in microchip tags -- grain-size data-bearing devices that are implanted under the skin between an animal's shoulder blades. Microchips were introduced in the early eighties; AVID Identification Systems, of Norco, California, one of the largest microchip companies in the world, now has more than eleven million pets in its international database, and HomeAgain, another major microchip supplier, has chips in close to three million. And GPS Tracks, a Jericho, New York-based company, will soon introduce the world's first global-positioning system for dogs -- a fist-size transmitter called a GlobalPetFinder, which will attach to the animal's collar and transmit its exact location every thirty seconds to a cell phone, computer, or a P.D.A. Before the device was even officially announced, the company had a waiting list of more than three thousand customers. "One night, it was pouring rain, my dogs had run away, the kids were hysterically crying, and I thought, This has to stop," Jennifer Durst, the founder and C.E.O. of GPS Tracks, said recently. "If they have Lo-Jack for cars, why can't there be a Lo-Dog for dogs?"

Coby, regrettably, had neither a microchip implant nor an early-release prototype of GlobalPetFinder. He wasn't even wearing his rabies tag, which is one more chance for an animal to be identified. Coby wears a nylon collar printed with his name and phone number and bearing his rabies tag, but Bell and Morris take it off every night so that Coby can sleep in the nude; that particular day, Morris hadn't put the collar on because he expected that the History Center trip would be brief and that Coby would be safely cosseted in the car. So the dog was now at large and anonymous, and everything that could identify him was at home, in a basket by the back door of Bell and Morris's sprawling split-level in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta.

After Wednesday night's fruitless search, Bell decided that it was time to accelerate into an outbreak investigation -- that is, to apply the same techniques she uses when analyzing, say, a wave of contagion among methamphetamine users in Wyoming. She and Morris blast-faxed Atlanta-area animal shelters, local rescue groups, and nearby veterinarian offices. They listed Coby on many of the almost countless Internet lost-pet sites: PetFinder; Pets 911; Pets Missing in Action; FindFido; Petznjam; K9Finder; Dog Tracer; Lassie Come Home. They made hundreds of posters, and on Thursday hung them in high-volume, highly animal-sensitive areas like the parking lots of pet stores. They also hung them along Peachtree Road, which cuts diagonally through northeast Atlanta and is lined with the city's busiest restaurants and bars. Bell reasoned that it was one of the few places in Atlanta where people travel on foot -- in other words, at a speed allowing for a close reading of a lost-dog poster.

They got responses immediately. A woman in northern Gwinnett County, about an hour's drive away, called to say that she had found a dog loosely fitting Coby's description; Bell and Morris drove up to take a look, but he turned out to be a Border collie someone else had lost. A woman called from Alabama, but the dog she had found was a small white poodle. The phone kept ringing -- some of the calls reported dog-sightings, some offered advice, many were from people who had also lost dogs and just wanted to commiserate. Bell and Morris were also flooded with e-mails:

Hi, This is Amy. . . . I'm so sorry to hear about this tragedy.

Maybe the thieves put him out in Buckhead, but who knows? Wonder why the dog was left in a car on a HOT summer day??????

I'm sorry your dog is missing, what a sad story.

On Thursday and Friday, they visited animal shelters around Atlanta to make sure that Coby wasn't waiting among the errant terriers and golden retrievers in the urban pounds, or the pit bulls and hounds languishing in shelters out of town. Bell realized that it was also time to start checking with the city employee who was assigned the unpleasant task of cataloguing each day's roadkill. "When you're searching for something, you never know what you're going to find," she said recently. "But you do have to ask the question."

One other question was whether to look for help elsewhere. The cohort of people with lost pets is large and constantly renewed, and forms a significant and often free-spending market to be served. In fact, one of the best-known lost-pet detectives in the country, Sherlock Bones, got into the business on a price-per-pound basis. Fed up with a job in the insurance industry, Bones, whose civilian name is John Keane, decided to start his own business but wasn't sure what to pursue until he noticed an ad for a lost Chihuahua. Keane said that the ad was an epiphany. "There was a thousand-dollar reward for that Chihuahua," he told me recently. "I thought to myself, That's five hundred dollars a pound." Keane, who started Sherlock Bones twenty-nine years ago and now operates out of Washougal, Washington, works on about five hundred cases a year. He used to do ground searches but now limits his involvement to consulting and to producing materials -- primarily posters and mailers -- for bereft owners. "Doing actual searches was very stressful," he said. At the time we spoke, he was out for a morning walk with his own dog, a French briard, and he was puffing lightly as he talked. "You're dealing with people in crisis. It's a serious business, since after eight hours it is unlikely someone will find their pet themselves, unless they're very lucky. They need help from someone who has the right information. You don't go to a rabbi to learn how to play baseball." He specializes in dogs and cats. "I don't deal with infrequent animals," he said. "Although I did make up a poster for a lost llama once, named Fernando Llama."

Bell and Morris decided to call Bones on Monday if they hadn't had any success; they also got in touch with a volunteer dog searcher named Debbie Hall, a member of a loose community of people across the country who trace lost pets for free. Hall helped them redesign their flyer, suggesting that they describe their car as well as the dog, and sent them extensive recommendations -- eight long documents -- on pet searches. Hall and her husband live in southeastern Massachusetts with a Yorkie-Chihuahua mix, a Yorkie-poodle mix, and three parakeets, two of which they got as a gift and a third that is probably someone's lost pet, because it just showed up in their yard one day. An entire room in the Halls' house is taken up by pet-detective appurtenances -- a rack of camouflage clothes, a few Havahart traps, and half a dozen notebooks detailing her searches. Hall often stays out all night on cases. "It's a long-ass day," she explained, "but I love what I do. This is the one thing in my life that I'm good enough at to call my work." It has not been without its mishaps. She had a gun pulled on her while searching for a German shepherd in Virginia and once got trapped in her own six-foot Havahart trap. Worst of all, she has spent countless days mourning dogs that she found only after they had died. "It still hurts," she said, flipping to a page in her notebook about her first case -- Tia, a runaway Border collie who eventually was found drowned. "But I am always optimistic that you will find your dog."

Late Saturday night, three days after Coby had disappeared, Bell and Morris got a break. A young guy walking down Peachtree had noticed one of their posters, and called to say that a few days earlier he had been playing rugby in a park downtown and had seen a dog that looked like Coby. "He said a man had been walking around the park with the dog, saying someone had just dropped it off," Bell said.

First thing Sunday morning, Bell and Morris headed over to the park, a weary-looking plot of land in a hardluck section of the city known as Old Fourth Ward. At the nearby Tabernacle Baptist Church and Mount Sinai Baptist Church, services were just ending, so Bell and Morris stopped and asked if anyone there had seen the dog, but no one had. They walked down Boulevard, the wide road on the western edge of Old Fourth Ward, past men playing dice in minimart parking lots and loitering in front of signs saying, "Private Property Do Not Sit On Wall." They passed out flyers and asked after Coby. "My brother has that dog," one of the men told Bell. "If you give me two dollars, I'll go get him." Someone else said he'd played catch with the dog. Bell and Morris handed out more flyers. A young man took one, walked away, and then turned on his heel and came back to talk to them. He said that his name was Chris Walker and that he didn't know anything about the dog, but he did know something about their car: he had seen it near the park over the last few days, and he recognized the driver because they'd been in police detention together a few months earlier.

"This guy Chris was a true scientist," Bell said, admiringly. "He said there were only three other people released from detention with him. One was Egyptian, one was elderly, and the third was the car thief, and that all we needed to do was get the detention records, eliminate those other two, and we would end up with this guy's name." Walker insisted that they call the police right away, so that they could check his story. He waited with them for almost an hour until a cruiser responded, and was disgusted that the police didn't have a computer in the car that could review detention records on the spot. Walker was so determined to have his tip substantiated that he accompanied Bell and Morris to a nearby precinct house to see if a police officer there would pull up the records. The officer wouldn't oblige them but he did believe that Walker was telling the truth, and he suggested that Morris and Bell contact Midtown Blue, an organization of police officers who do security work when they're off duty, which he thought might help them. Morris and Bell gave Walker reward money, but he seemed more interested in making sure that they followed up on his tip. "It's a family curse," Walker's uncle Lee Harris told me when I visited him last summer. "We'll just bend over backward to help anyone in pain." Later that Sunday, after leaving Bell and Morris, Walker tangled with a police officer again, and on Monday, when he called Bell to find out if she'd found her car, he was calling from jail.

As astonishing as Walker's story seemed, Bell and Morris came to believe that he had indeed seen their car, and that, from what the rugby player who had called them from Peachtree had told them, the thief had let the dog out in the park. On a shallow slope near the playing fields, they talked to the homeless people who sleep there under a small stand of oak trees, and they all remembered Coby. Some of those same people were still in the park this summer when I went to Atlanta. It was another blistering day; someone was listlessly banging tennis balls against a wall, and muffled cheers and hollers from a soccer game at the far end of the park rose up in the heavy air. Under a cement pavilion in a sliver of shade, a man was sitting on a bench, plunking on a guitar held together with duct tape. He said that his name was Ben Macon, that he had lived in the park for ten years, and that he had spent several days during the previous summer with Coby, whom he described precisely, down to Coby's striking stare and predatory crouch while playing catch. "That dog was unbelievable," Macon said. "He was someone you could play with. He'd be your friend. You could tell he was a people dog." Macon strummed a little and then leaned on the guitar. "IfI had a place of my own, I'd like a dog like that. But people with dogs, those are people who have good jobs." He paused for a moment and then added, "A dog like that gives you a warm feeling. I miss him."

By mid-afternoon that Sunday, Bell and Morris had spent hours searching in the park and going up and down Boulevard, so they took a break from handing out flyers and hanging posters and went home to shower and eat. Their phone rang. A woman on the line said that on Saturday she and her partner had picked up a black male Border collie with no collar as he chased a tennis ball across Boulevard. They had had no luck finding his owner through rescue groups, and they were currently in their car with the dog on their way to the veterinarian because they had decided to keep him. But en route to the vet they had seen one of Bell and Morris's posters -- they had probably hung it no more than an hour before. The woman, Danielle Ross, suggested that Bell and Morris meet them at the vet's. When she got off the phone, Ross, who also works at the C.D.C. but had never met Bell, decided to say the name of the dog on the poster to the dog in her car. First she pronounced it "Cobbie," and the dog, who looked reasonably healthy but was totally exhausted, didn't lift his head. Then she tried another pronunciation -- "Cobee" -- and he sat up. By the time she and her partner, Debbie Doyle, and the dog arrived at the Pets Are People, Too clinic, she knew the dog was going home.

When Bell and Morris pulled into the parking lot, they could see the dog through the front window of the clinic, and they knew it was Coby. As exhausted as he was, he raced to meet them at the door. Late that night, a police officer called Bell and Morris at home. There had been an automobile accident; the driver had fled; the car, which had been impounded, belonged to them. When Bell and Morris went to the police station the next day to claim it, they were first told that they were mistaken -- that no car matching their car's identification numbers had been impounded. But then the officer checked the records again and determined that they did in fact have the car. It had been totalled.

Now, with both Coby and the car accounted for, Bell and Morris felt they might be on a streak. All they needed was to find the viola da gamba. They decided to look in the phone book for pawn shops; there are nearly three hundred in the Atlanta area, so they concentrated on ones near the park where Coby had spent his time. One of them, Jerry's Pawn Shop, listed musical instruments among its specialties. It was a long shot -- there are some ten thousand items pawned each month in downtown Atlanta alone, and it was just a guess that the car thief would have decided to cash in the instrument, that he would have chosen to do it at a pawn shop, and that he would have taken it to one near the park. Morris called Jerry's and asked after the viola da gamba. Yes, they had just got one from a fellow who had pawned it for twenty-five dollars. It was Morris's loaner. The man who pawned it? "Well, he didn't strike me as a viola da gamba player," Bill Hansel, who handled the transaction, recalled. According to Hansel, the man was youngish, in a hurry, and happy to sell the viola da gamba outright rather than pawn it. A Georgia law requires fingerprints and identification from anyone doing business with pawn shops. The police later traced the address that the non-viola da gamba player had provided; it turned out to be an empty house.

At this point, the police certainly knew the thief's name -- it was on the pawn voucher and in the detention records from his previous lockup with Chris Walker, and there were fingerprints on the Volvo, the viola da gamba, the pawn voucher, and probably on Coby, but the man was still at large. Before the car was towed to a wrecking yard, Morris went through it one more time to see if there were any last belongings of his or Bell's still inside. There was nothing of theirs, but the thief had left behind some of his clothes, a bunch of computer parts, notes from his girlfriend, poetry he had written, and a stack of address labels bearing someone else's name.

 
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