PHILADELPHIA – During a particularly cold week in March 2019, Karen Jackson and her family welcomed a new member to their Westtown home: a 3-year-old female from the Great Pyrenees, adopted from a local shelter. But their pleasure was short-lived. Within hours of bringing the dog home – they hadn’t even decided to give it a name – the dog had slipped out the front door and vanished into the night.
âShe just kept running and we couldn’t find her,â Jackson said.
Distraught, they did all they could: contacted the shelter where they adopted her, posted lost dog notices, searched the neighborhood. Then they got a call from a woman who said she would like to help. Her name was Cathy Herman-Harsch.
Within four days, Herman-Harsch found the dog, which the Jackson named Beatrix, aka Trixie.
âAnything she did, I don’t think would have come naturally to anyone,â Jackson said.
And Herman-Harsch wouldn’t take a dime from the Jacksons.
“It’s like finding someone’s child,” said Herman-Harsch, 58. “You find a family member.”
THE PET SEARCHER
Herman-Harsch is a special breed of animal lovers. For nearly 18 years, she made a living with All Things 4 Legged & Personal, her pet care business in Chester County, Pennsylvania. But its vocation is to help people find their lost dogs and cats. It’s something this Navy veteran and former computer scientist learned over the years by studying and observing pets, his own and others.
“It’s about understanding their behavior,” she said. “It’s thinking like a dog, thinking like a cat: ‘If I was lost here, what would I do?'”
Finding a lost animal takes persistence, said Herman-Harsch, who runs her volunteer operation with three other women and her 17-year-old son Johnathan.
âRecovery is not for the tired or those who drink decaffeinated,â she said. “You must be a little crazy, and you need your caffeine.”
Much of what she tells pet owners to do – and not to do – seems counterintuitive. Running through the woods, chasing a pet, shouting its name? Big no-no. It will probably only scare him away.
âPeople don’t realize it’s not your pet right now,â she said. “He’s a scared dog, a scared cat, and all they think about is, ‘A predator. Someone is trying to hurt me.'”
LURE ANIMALS WITH FOOD
Herman-Harsch asks owners to entice their pets with plenty of food and to use only non-threatening approaches: no eye contact, and just sit and let the animal come to them. She has them scatter pieces of clothing or fabrics that have the smell of the owner or the animal where there have been sightings. Sometimes she uses equipment such as surveillance cameras that are motion activated and humane traps in areas where animals have been seen, especially newly adopted animals that are not likely to return to their owners.
She should also disillusion owners with bad advice from others, such as putting pet litter outside, in the hope of luring them into their home. All that’s going to do, she says, is attract feral cats and other animals looking to mark the box as theirs.
She and her team also advise owners on how to make the most of lost animal posters and social media – and, most importantly, not to give up.
âI have seen married couples fight like cats and dogs,â Herman-Harsch said. “No, no. You can’t fight. You have to be united on this.”
“Every search is different. It can be frustrating, but often you just need to reorient yourself,” added Tina Fini, 39, a nurse and member of the Herman-Harsch team. At the end of the day, she said, the rewards are great: âIt’s such an amazing feeling to be able to help a distraught pet owner get their baby back. “
Many animal shelters and rescues will help owners locate lost animals that have been adopted through them; and some, like Delco Dawgs, will help owners find lost pets, regardless of where they were obtained. Herman-Harsch has partnered with these and other members of the animal rights community to help locate the missing pets in Chester County.
âI can’t say enough good things about his dedication and commitment,â said Dru Campbell, director of LaMancha Animal Rescue of Coatesville, Pennsylvania. âWhen Cathy and her team are called in, they begin the search and rescue effort immediately. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, rainy, or hot.
âWe use Cathy because of her involvement,â added Kristen Geddes, director of All 4 Paws Rescue in Chester Springs, PA. “She’s wonderful. She knows what she’s doing.”
Scott Schaefer, 58, of Phoenixville, Pa., And his family strongly agree. Last summer, their black lab mix, Parker, ran away from the parking lot of their vet’s office in Malvern.
ENLARGE THE POSTERS
On Herman-Harsch’s advice, Schaefer made his posters of lost animals larger and more colorful, and omitted references to the locations of past sightings that could falsely influence sightings. She also advised against offering a reward (to eliminate people looking for money) and asked the Schaefers to organize barbecues near local bodies of water to lure the wayward Parker: runaway animals need help. ‘water and often travel nearby, Herman-Harsch tells them, and they are drawn to the smell of grilled meat.
But Parker was a tough case. For five weeks, the Schaefers had actual encounters with Parker, but the dog then ran away again. Herman-Harsch wouldn’t give up, so neither would the Schaefers. Finally, the family received a late night call from a woman who believed they had seen Parker on the grounds of her apartment complex in Malvern, PA. Schaefer and her 22-year-old daughter Rachel jumped into the car.
This time they got it.
âHe’s crying. I’m crying. My daughter is crying,â Schaefer said. “It’s this incredible gathering.”
Even though Schaefer and his daughter made the actual capture, he doesn’t think it would have happened without Herman-Harsch’s guidance.
âI would have just been out there spinning my wheels, not knowing which direction to head,â he said.
OUTSIDE THE CITY
Some of Herman-Harsch’s rescues have involved outsiders whose pets went missing while visiting the area.
Gary Francella, 55, a military account manager from Virginia Beach, Va., Was in Downingtown, Pa., For his mother’s funeral in July 2019 when his beloved Puppy, a toy poodle, went missing. Herman-Harsch helped with the search – even staying with Francella for 10 hours straight – until Puppy was found. Francella was so moved by the odyssey that he self-publishes a book about it.
“She was a godsend,” he said of Herman-Harsch. âShe didn’t ask for anything.
Californians Jenna Long, 34, medical assistant, and Kyle Hott, 36, aerospace engineer, were visiting friends and family in Pennsylvania during the 2015 Christmas season when Bailey, their Corgi-Chihuahua, walked away. fled. The couple’s devotion to their dog included traveling back and forth between Pennsylvania and California to personally continue the search, as well as hiring Pure Gold Pet Tracker, a Maryland company that uses trained dogs to track lost animals. But their quarterback was Herman-Harsch, who continued the search even when the couple were back on the West Coast.
âIt has become our command post on the east coast,â said Long. “She really led the local efforts.”
After nine weeks (and lots of roast chickens used as decoy meat), Bailey was brought home.
Like other grateful owners, the couple said the animal researcher won’t accept money for their efforts, just supplies to help with other recoveries.
Many people have advised Herman-Harsch to rethink her pro bono policy, she said, given that her paid job – caring for pets – has been decimated by the pandemic.
âOur clients work from home. They don’t need us,â she said. “We’re really, really in trouble.”
But charging to find a pet doesn’t seem right.
âMy heart just can’t afford it,â she said. Also, “It’s not about you. It’s about making the family a whole person.”