It all started with a Yorkie named Lucy.
The canine companion had squeezed her way under a fence behind her Winter Park home, and it wasn’t long before she was picked up in the front yard by a stranger driving by who assumed she was lost.
Out of her element with no collar and no microchip, Lucy was driven all the way to a home near the Orlando International Airport — far away from her owners who were frantically searching for her and posting flyers.
Helping in the search were nearby Winter Park residents Judy Charuhas and Shelley Heistand, who were posting flyers and happened to place one inside The Cheesecake Factory at the Winter Park Village.
The stars aligned for lucky Lucy and her owners not long after: The driver who had picked her up happened to work at — you guessed it — that very same Cheesecake Factory.
That was the first — but not the only — reunion Charuhas and Heistand would witness. They went on to launch a service in their community that would help furry friends find their way back home.
Winter Park Lost Pets recently rescued its 1,700th pet — a milestone that makes co-founders Charuhas and Heistand reflect on nine years of happy tails and families getting put back together.
The free web-based service was started by Charuhas and her neighbor Heistand in 2009, after that first Yorkie went missing. The two decided it was something that was needed in the community — a service that could help reunite lost pets with their families.
Heistand, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, sponsored the cost of running the site and maintains it to this today.
“Shelley said, ‘There has to be a better way,’” Charuhas said. “I said, ‘There is — it would be a website, and it would be very expensive.’ You can have a great idea, but (Shelley) followed up. … We saw the potential that this is something that could help so many people.”
“It’s all from the heart,” Heistand said.
Here’s how the website works: A pet owner who loses their dog, cat, rabbit, bird or whatever animal they own reports the missing pet on the website. Once a description and picture of the pet is posted, an alert is sent to about 20,000 people in the area via email, plus the nearly 5,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.
Then, neighbors, firefighters, police officers, postal workers and animal-lovers keep a lookout for the pet, and report it as “found” when they locate the lost animal. Often, the person who finds the pet holds on to them for a short time before they can be reconnected with the owner. A family is made whole once more and usually pays it forward by joining the ever-growing email list.
It’s a system that could only work in a small town such as Winter Park, Heistand said.
Nine out of 10 pets listed on the site end up getting reunited with their families.
“Our tagline is ‘It takes one open gate to lose a pet, and a whole community to find it,’” said Charuhas, who is constantly monitoring and updating the website with which pets have been reunited and which still are missing.
Charuhas and Heistand also started a nonprofit branch of Winter Park Lost Pets known as The Lost Pets Foundation, which is committed to spreading pet education with the help of volunteers at events. The 501(c)(3) teaches pet owners everything from microchipping 101 to ensuring pet safety during hurricanes.
The Winter Park duo wants to take the website system another step further to keep pets from getting lost: preemptive registration before a pet goes missing. A database of pets registered by their owners could go a long way in making sure they return home safely if they get lost, Charuhas said.
Like many free services, the only problem is that Winter Park Lost Pets usually doesn’t come to mind until the day it is needed — when a furry friend escapes the backyard.
“Whenever we do an event, there’s constant education,” Charuhas said.
More than 1,700 reunited pets later, the mission from the beginning is the same.
“They’re a part of your family — it’s an unconditional love back and forth that you sometimes don’t even have with people,” Winter Park Lost Pets volunteer Shampa Davie said. “There’s an energy there that you can’t even define with a pet.”