We brought our daughter home from the hospital on a foggy San Francisco morning. Stepping out of the car, we handled her nervously. We climbed our stairs, opening the front door tentatively, like burglars. Inside, it was just the three of us for the first time: a quiet moment, until my phone began to ring. It was, of all people, my dog walker.
“Olive is missing,” he shouted, his voice shaky. “She ran away from the group and now we can’t find her. You better come soon.”
Olive, our black Labrador-pitbull mix with white paws and a salt-and-pepper face, was lost in Fort Funston, a wild expanse of craggy dunes and hiking trails in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, some 80,000 acres of federally protected land spanning three Bay Area counties. Fort Funston’s off-leash policy makes it a popular destination for dogs and their handlers—as well as an easy place to get lost.
“Olive knows the place, don’t worry,” my husband reassured me before leaving the house. “She’ll come running as soon as she hears me.”
But he arrived after dark, hoarse from yelling Olive’s name over the roar of the ocean, and exhausted, having spent the previous three nights on a shrunken hospital sofa. The next afternoon, Fort Funston was covered in flyers offering a four-figure reward for Olive’s safe return. There still was no sign of her. We were drained, caring for our newborn, and desperate, mourning the absence of our family dog. Three days into Olive’s disappearance, we regrouped at the kitchen table, poring over maps of Fort Funston like generals preparing for battle. It was time to call in the auxiliary troops. It was time to call the pet detective.
“Do you know Jackie?” My husband encountered this question several times while stapling flyers to the trees at Fort Funston. Jackie Phillips, we soon learned, is a real-life Ace Ventura, a lost pet specialist who has worked more than 500 cases in and around a city that famously counts more dogs than children as residents. Hired by distraught dog-owners, she arrives at the pet’s last known location, donning a reflective vest, gloves, and sunglasses, accompanied by her scent dog Dino, a mixed herding breed she adopted in 2006. Serious and focused, the opposite of Jim Carrey’s version of a pet detective, she draws on decades of experience as a dog trainer, animal control officer and shelter volunteer. A native of Daly City, the first suburb south of San Francisco, she comes from a long line of animal caretakers.
Seven years ago at a multi-day seminar hosted by the Seattle-based Missing Pet Partnership, an organization founded in 1997 by a K9 cop turned pet detective, Phillips discovered Dino’s aptitude for search and rescue work. “At the end of the course we all brought our dogs,” recalls Phillips, “and the instructor did a basic evaluation to see if the dogs were interested in finding cats.” Dino, a herding-hound mix from the farmlands of California’s Central Valley, showed a friendly disposition toward other animals and intense prey drive, which is what makes herders the smartest and hardest workers of the canine world.
Phillips understood first-hand the value of a scent-tracking dog. In 1992, her dog Chessie, a pitbull-mix, was stolen from her backyard in Santa Rosa, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. “They took down one of the boards in the fence, which was eight feet high,” she explained. “Chessie had just had cruciate surgery, and was barely walking. I never found her.”
More than a few times, Phillips has been called to Fort Funston, where dogs who slip away from the pack tend to vanish into the vast, windswept landscape. Named for an army general from Ohio who fought in the American-Philippines War, Fort Funston once belonged to a network of coastal fortifications designed to protect the San Francisco Bay, one of the most strategically important harbors in the country, from enemies on the Pacific. Fort Funston went on high alert in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Soldiers scrambled up observation towers, scanning the seas for signs of Japanese warships that never came. Army planners turned the headlands into a missile launch site in the early days of the Cold War, but in 1963, transferred Fort Funston to the National Park Service. The military’s presence is still visible on the beach. But today, Fort Funston is a dog’s paradise.
Traveling on Sunset Trail, through the woods and down to the beach, dogs walk along cypress and eucalyptus groves, the air cool and perfumed. Wildflowers blanket the ground in early summer, and cottontail rabbits dart through the brush. Soaring dunes offer stunning views of the Pacific. Foot traffic is light, and civilization feels far away. The trail gives way to a wide beach, where dogs play and chase, tails wagging in rapture. Seagulls and pelicans glide across the water, and sometimes, on a clear day, bottlenose dolphins appear in the distance, surfing the waves.
Fort Funston’s untamed beauty – what makes the place so appealing to city dwellers – becomes menacing, even deadly, for owners of missing dogs. “How will she survive out there?” my husband and I asked each other, our imaginations running wild. One wrong turn and Olive would be trapped in a thicket of willows, enveloped in fog, lost and disoriented like Alice in Wonderland. What if she went too far into the ocean? Fort Funston is not a swimming beach; the strong undertow would be the end of her. What if a mountain lion showed up and ate her? What if someone stole her? Olive looked part pitbull; her soft eyes and shy demeanor were no guarantee against being tied up in some dingy basement, used as bait by a dogfighting ring. What if she made a run for it, left the area, and was hit by a car? What if she succumbed to hunger or dehydration? Each night, we went over the terrible possibilities, growing closer to panic every time the sun went down.
In fiction, a mystery begins with a crime, usually in an urban, yet isolated, setting. The detective puts together fragments to explain the past and identify a culprit. The truth may be elusive, but it is always knowable. The founding father of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, referred to his stories as “tales of ratiocination,” or exercises in logic. His reclusive French investigator, Dupin, an oddball possessed of analytical prowess, solves cases by gathering information and seeing clues that others miss. Dino is like Dupin, while Phillips plays the narrator of the pet detective story. In the beginning, there is no dead body; instead Phillips drives her red van to the owner’s home to collect evidence for Dino: “scent items,” such as blankets, plush toys or a dog bed. Dino learns the smell of the missing dog; once he has committed it to memory, he circles the item several times. Phillips takes a thorough history of the pet, but scent is the most important clue she and Dino will have. They hike, walk and run, sometimes nine or ten miles in one day, sustained by fruit punch flavored Gatorade and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Dino’s favorite. They generate a Google map, tracing their route to detect patterns: Is the dog returning to a source of food or water, or seeking refuge in a particular place?
Phillips and Dino have an unlikely ally in San Francisco’s fog, which makes smells linger in the air and cling to vegetation. Dogs are odiferous, not visual, “seeing” the world through their noses. The cold, wet canine nose holds up to 300 million olfactory receptors, while the human nose contains, at most, six million. Scent-tracking dogs are trained to make the most of this acute sense of smell, detecting not only the presence of an odor, but also changes to it. Like a real investigator, Dino is able to reconstruct events, because scent marks the passage of time. He follows the trail with a more concentrated odor, knowing that it is newer than the trail with a weaker smell. But Dino’s effectiveness is limited to single-pet households, where scent items provide one viable smell to pursue. His work is also circumscribed by time and weather; a few days of hot, dry conditions will destroy scent vapors.
When Morinne Yeh called Jackie Phillips to find Gracie, her four-year-old Shih Tzu, the pea-soup conditions that morning likely assisted Dino in his search. Yeh was at work when Gracie, a small but sprightly toy breed, leaped onto a guitar amp, broke out of the sunroom, into the kitchen, and out the front door, propped open by contractors working on the house. Missing pet specialists refer to this kind of escape as an “opportunistic journey.”
Using Gracie’s pink fleece vest as a scent item – “I’m one of those people who puts clothes on their dogs,” Yeh later told me – Phillips prepared Dino to track Gracie. Establishing the direction of travel, Dino sniffed his way to Golden Gate Park, a few blocks from Yeh’s home, stopping at a particular tree near Elk Glen Meadow. Spotting a gardener, Yeh and Phillips asked if he had seen any dogs matching Gracie’s description. It turned out the gardener had found a Shih Tzu the previous afternoon, struck by a car in the nearby intersection of 19th Avenue and Lincoln Way. The tree on which Dino was fixated was where the gardener laid Gracie to rest.
“No amount of money was too much for what Jackie and Dino gave me,” says Yeh. “They brought Gracie back to me. I had answers and closure. I was able to say a proper goodbye and cremate her.”
Hiring a pet detective can run into the hundreds, even thousands of dollars, if special equipment is required. Professionals bill by the hour, and a search carried out in summer months can begin at five a.m., ending fifteen hours later at dusk. Phillips spends evenings writing reports, answering calls, sending out maps, and responding to emails.
Unlucky clients have taken to Yelp to cry foul, but the truth is that no search dog, despite training, talent and a promising success rate, can guarantee results. Unlike a missing persons case, where there is no money exchanged between private citizens and law enforcement officials, a pet detective expects payment, no matter the outcome, and requests a deposit up front.
While working with Phillips, I contacted one of the biggest names in the field, Annalisa Berns, the owner of Pet Search and Rescue in San Diego, where she lives with PJ, a feral cat; Lilly, her retired search dog; Peri, her companion pug-Chihuahua mix; and a few foster dogs from rescue groups. Her pet detective agency reports a 70-80% success rate and she has garnered national attention, appearing on “Good Morning America” in 2011 and in the pages of Oprah’s magazine, O, in February of this year. We discussed Olive’s case and the terrain at Fort Funston. “Animals are survivors,” Berns reminded me, “far better than humans at facing the challenges of Mother Nature.” She prepared a series of Google Earth maps, indicating high-priority areas for our search, and writing:
Put flyers on car windows and around parking lots, which are circled in blue. Nearby residential areas are shown in purple. Go door-to-door asking questions and distributing flyers. The red circle shows the area where Olive went missing. Everything circled in pink belongs to the nearby golf course. Water is available on golf courses. Speak to EVERY SINGLE landscaper, and hang signs in English and Spanish. Ask about security cameras.
Berns and Phillips had similar theories about Olive’s whereabouts. A cautious canine with a skittish temperament, Olive was in a “blind panic,” meaning her “fight or flight response” had kicked in, sending her into the safety of a secret hiding place. This was the trickiest scenario, since a scared dog will avoid people, coming out only under the cover of darkness to search for food and water. Berns hatched an ambitious plan. My husband and I would set up feeding stations around Fort Funston, rigging a wildlife camera with night vision – available at a sporting goods store – to a tree. We would borrow a humane trap from Animal Care and Control of San Francisco County, deploying it to catch Olive. First, we would have to convince park rangers to let us catch our dog on federal land. We didn’t know it yet, but we would also need hang gliders.
The steady winds and ocean cliffs at Fort Funston make it one of the most famous hang-gliding destinations in the world. Advanced gliders sport brightly colored wings, launching off the 200-foot precipice and taking in coastal scenery from the clouds. Fellow Feathers, a local hang-gliding group, runs a clubhouse on the headlands. Four days into “Operation Argos” — as I referred to our search for Olive, recalling Odysseus’s faithful dog in ancient Greece — I was contacted by one of Fellow Feathers members. He had seen Olive on the dunes, recognizing her from flyers posted near the clubhouse. He landed his parachute and tried to coax her into approaching him. Spooked by the sight of a stranger strapped to artificial wings, she fled.
But it dawned on us that hang gliders had a bird’s eye view of Fort Funston that no pet detective or scent-tracking dog could provide. The following days brought several sightings by Fellow Feathers: new “last-known locations.” Our search entered a new phase. Glued to our phones, we erupted with excitement when an unfamiliar number flashed on our screens. “Olive is alive!” She was in the area, according to hang gliders, still attached to her red leash. We were close to cracking our case.
Their accounts corroborated the story told by Phillips and Dino, whose maps showed Olive circling Lake Merced, a natural reservoir on the other side of cliffs at Fort Funston. According to Dino’s olfactory receptors, Olive left the dunes, visited the nearby golf course, The Olympic Club, and was walking along roads surrounding the lake. Dino honed in on a residential area near the lake before his scent trail went cold. We were stumped. We were getting closer, but our bank account was dwindling and it was becoming less likely that we would find Olive before tragedy struck.
On the seventh day, I received a call from an unknown number. “Is this Olive?” a man asked. I rushed to the address he offered, an apartment complex near Lake Merced. His dachshund had been barking all morning, staring through the kitchen window at the backyard. He finally went outside to investigate, and there was Olive, wearing her tags. When I arrived, the caller was still in his pajamas. He resembled Paul Giamatti, the actor. He refused to take my money. He found Olive, brought her inside, gave her food and water, and made room for her on his couch. I never even knew his name.
Dino, it turned out, was in the right place, but stopped just shy of Olive’s location. “Did something happen to her scent trail? Did another animal tamper with the evidence?” we later wondered with Phillips. The end of our search was surprising and perfect, like a good detective story. Olive tackled me, crying with excitement. I took her home to meet my daughter.