Emmy the dachshund got loose during a family photo shoot. Simba the cat was startled during a bad storm, ran out of the house and didn’t come back. Dylan the bichon frise escaped through the backyard fence. Gary the cat escaped from a porch in the chaos following a house fire.
No matter how it happens, pets get lost every day. Try as she might, Judy Charuhas of Winter Park can’t stop dogs and cats from going missing, but she can do everything in her power to get them found.
In late 2009, Charuhas, along with her neighbor Shelley Heistand, founded WinterParkLostPets.com — a lost and found pet database — to help do just that.
“It takes one open gate to lose a pet, but a community to find it,” Charuhas said.
Emmy, Simba, Dylan and Gary are just four of the more than 200 pets the website has helped reunite since its creation. And with satellite Lost Pets sites in the works around Central Florida, Charuhas said WinterParkLostPets.com is just getting started. WaterfordLakesLostPets.com is scheduled to launch by July 1, and other community partnerships are on the horizon.
How it works
When a pet is lost or found, Charuhas said that an owner or finder can visit the website and upload the animal’s last-known whereabouts, a brief description, a photo and the owner’s contact information — all for free.
This process, Charuhas said, may sound familiar to general open posting websites such as Craigslist. So what does Winter Park Lost Pets have that those don’t? For starters, a human on the other end.
“We’re different from Craigslist in that we verify postings,” she said. “I go through and check each listing and am in contact with all the posters.”
Once a post is live, visitors can automatically generate a lost or found poster to hang the old-fashioned way around their neighborhood with the same information that is posted on the website.
Also, once Charuhas verifies a post, she blasts out an email alert to the websites’ members that a pet has either been found or is missing. Copied on the emails are local vets, rescue groups and shelters, which can now be on the lookout.
This, she says, is the key to WinterParkLostPets.com’s 80 percent success rate for reuniting pets listed on the site.
By alerting different members of the community, she says the website is in effect creating its own community of, as she calls them, “pet patrollers.”
“This is not only a lost-and-found website, it’s a community,” she said.
The website also serves as a database for pet-related information that owners should know. From checklists of what to do when your animal goes missing, to a list of recalls on pet products, to local shelters and low-cost vets, Charuhas said she does her best to see that the website has it all.
When her Winter Park home was left uninhabitable after a house fire in October, Laura Hansen moved with her family — including their 8-year-old cat, Gary — to a third-floor apartment in Baldwin Park.
Shortly after, Gary found his way out onto their porch, through the railing, onto a nearby tree and out of sight before Hansen could notice. She posted flyers and called her neighbors to let them know to keep an eye out for the orange cat, but for months she had no luck.
“I was looking for him every day, it was very stressful on top of the house fire — losing him,” she said.
Her sister referred her to WinterParkLostPets.com, where Hansen came in contact with Charuhas. Though the house fire had destroyed any pictures she had of Gary, Hansen still posted a lost listing with a description of the cat in desperation that someone had seen him.
Weeks later, Charuhas was leaving the post office and walking toward her car — which has a Winter Park Lost Pets’ red, white and blue logo. A woman stopped Charuhas and told her she had found an orange cat with bright green eyes near her home by Rollins College. It was Gary.
Nearly three months later after the cat went missing, the family was reunited.
“I was in disbelief,” Hansen said. “I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
Charuhas says the process of reuniting pets with their owners is all about hope and never giving up.
“Every single one of these pets have their own story,” Charuhas said, scrolling through the lost and found pages of her site. “That’s why I don’t want to give up on finding them.”