When animals are lost

Cycling home from school dropoff this week I saw, taped to a bikeway sign, one of those notices asking for help finding a lost dog. The dog’s name was Malta, it said, and there was a picture of a regal but not unkindly poodle-like face with a blond bouffant frizz on top. I had the strangest feeling I was going to find Malta so I tore off one of the phone number tabs and set off along the creekside trail. 

I see these signs a lot in our neighbourhood, on lamp posts, trees or on the community noticeboard up the street. They’re mostly photocopied on A4 paper, with the animal’s name, habits, a picture. I remember a cat named Maya that answered to her name, a cockatoo that made a Nokia phone noise, a chicken, an epileptic dog that needed its medication. I always stop to read, hope the animal finds its person again.

Once when we were staying at a friend’s house in Bangalow, a dog started following us. You could tell it was lost. I said we’d take it back to the house and work out what to do. My husband said we had nowhere to keep a dog and the dog had no collar identification. It also had no road sense. As night began to fall, I made cars slow down so they wouldn’t hit the dog. We were nearly at the house when one of those cars pulled up, the dog’s owner, distraught. She’d been driving around for hours. She greeted the dog, Rocket. Rocket jumped onto his front seat cushion and snuggled in. His owner looked to our son, then five. I have a boy your age, she said. Rocket thought you were his boy and so he followed you. Our son was so proud. He told the story. Rocket thought I was his boy and so he followed me.

Our dog Spike is a homebody but I know some dog escape artists. Our friend’s spaniel Belle stands at the gate and waits. If you open it a smidge too far, she’s off full-pelt, her owner following at speed, cornering her in some far yard. And then there’s Rosie up the street, a tunneller, under fences or the garage doors to dance on the road. Her owner bought a special collar that shouted in dog every time Rosie came close to the fence. When we passed she threw herself around like Hamlet, desperate to escape but knowing she mustn’t. To be or not. 

The RSPCA doesn’t like the shouting collars, preferring a GPS tag that does Find-my-Fido like Find-my-iPhone. But if your dog’s a runner, you’ll do anything. My first dog Benny, a spaniel terrier from the pound, escaped at every opportunity. If you called him back, he turned and looked at you like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and then kept going. He’d always come home by nightfall. And then one time, he didn’t. We searched. The next day passed and the next. I was distraught. And then, late one evening two weeks later, there was Benny at the back door, except he was no longer Benny. He was Patch, with a new nametag. He’d had a bath too. After that, he’d go for a week at a time and come home as Patch and we’d make him Benny again. Finally, he left for good, possibly preferring his Patch life. We never met his other owners but I guess they’re out there somewhere. I hope they loved him as much as I did.

I didn’t find Malta either, but I rang Malta’s owner Hugh to see what happened. Malta had a storm phobia, Hugh told me, which may be common among Legottos, Malta’s breed. These are Italian lake dogs, loyal and loving, keen swimmers. Malta panicked in a storm while Hugh was out, jumped a 1.8 metre fence and was gone. She was found 10 days later near a creek 8 kilometres from home. She was emaciated but alive. Someone managed to catch her, took her to a vet who read her microchip and reunited her with Hugh.

When animals go missing, someone is waiting and hoping. It doesn’t always work out. I’m glad Malta made it home.