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Solve This Mystery!
Mugsy, 23-002 - Part 2 (The Reveal)
Here is the second half of the mystery about Mugsy, a cat lost in the Cascade Mountains after being involved in a terrible RV crash. To recap, here are the six recovery strategy choices that you had to choose from as your next step to recover Mugsy:
(1) Strategy #1 - Bring a cat detection dog to the top of the ravine.
(2) Strategy #2 - Rappel down into the ravine and set baited humane traps at the bottom.
(3) Strategy #3 - Advise the owner to find a safe route to go down into the ravine with food and call Mugsy’s name.
(4) Strategy #4 - Set out dirty kitty litter boxes at the edges of the ravine so the litter scent would blow down the hill.
(5) Strategy #5 – Contact the microchip company and report Mugsy as lost.
(6) Strategy #6 – Get on social media and post Mugsy’s photo all over Lost & Found pet pages.
The correct answer was Strategy #2, rappel down the ravine and set baited humane traps at the bottom along with game cameras to verify that Mugsy was still in the ravine. Congratulations to- the WINNER of this Mystery case! Lynn you have the option of an autographed copy of my memoir PET TRACKER, a 15 foot strip of CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape (great for events, Halloween, or practical jokes like stringing the tape up in your front yard before your spouse gets home as a practical joke), or a 30-minute “Whatever Consultation” with me where we can talk about whatever. Let me know which prize you’d like to claim.
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The Other Strategies
Strategy #1, bringing in a cat detection dog, was deemed not to be an option in this case because we already knew the area where Mugsy was most likely hiding (the ravine), so a dog wasn’t needed.
Strategy #3, advising the daughter to climb down the ravine and use food noises while calling Mugsy was also deemed infeasible. That’s because a cat involved in an automobile accident will be severely traumatized, filled with cortisol (adrenaline), and in fight-or-flight mode. They won’t respond to food scent or litterbox scent or any scent because they’re stuck in flight mode and are not thinking about food, only about survival. Panicked cats will hide in silence and, when they encounter frightening noises like footsteps snapping twigs in the ravine, they will often move away from the noise.
Strategy #4, setting out dirty cat litter boxes at the edges of the ravine, was deemed not to be an option because the use of litter-box scents, in spite of it being mentioned everywhere on the internet, is actually a “questionable cause fallacy” that is NOT recommended for lost cat recoveries. Using any scent lure at the top of the ravine (even food scent) would be pointless as Mugsy was likely in fight-or-flight mode, plus we wouldn’t want to attract Mugsy to come out of the ravine and get hurt or killed on the nearby interstate onramp.
Strategy #5, contacting the microchip company to report that Mugsy is lost, was deemed not to be necessary at this point because her implanted microchip was not going to be detected by a shelter as long as she was down in the ravine.
Strategy #6, getting on social media and posting Mugsy’s photo all over Lost & Found pet pages, was also not a great strategy. There was no need for the entire world to know that Mugsy was lost in the woods, although we did have plenty of giant, neon LOST CAT posters in the immediate area of the crash site and ravine.
So, here’s how the Mugsy case went down.
We called in the WASART (Washington State Animal Rescue Team) who had team members rappel down into the ravine with four humane traps and four game cameras.
I handed the leader of the rappelling team a can of Friskies canned cat food with instructions to smear the wet (and very smelly) salmon cat food up high in some tree branches near the trap and camera. Yeah, he was not particularly thrilled with that set of instructions! Yet, because of my knowledge of scent dispersal from my experience in training search dogs, I knew that smearing smelly bait up high would help distribute, almost broadcast, that scent over a much, much larger area than if only a small amount of food was placed inside the trap. Using only a small amount of food in a humane trap was pretty much the standard way of baiting traps at that time. This method of luring dogs and cats by broadcasting smelly food scent is now called “scent luring” or “smudging” and is widely used to help recover dogs and cats.
As instructed, the team that rappelled into the ravine smudged cat food on the tree branches, baited the humane traps, and disarmed them by using bungee cords to tie the doors open so they were not able to trap anything. Due to the remote location of this accident, the unavailability of our volunteers, and the family dealing with funeral arrangements, no one was able to check the traps on a daily basis and we did not want an animal (Mugsy, a raccoon, a fox) to become trapped and left unattended. The plan was to check the cameras every few days (this was before our videos would upload directly to the cloud) to see if Mugsy was coming to the area and only then, once she was caught on camera, a surveillance team would be assembled to conduct a trapping operation. We wanted to be there, at the top of the ravine in our vehicles, when the traps were actually set for capture.
For over a week, nothing was caught on the cameras. But 18 days after the accident, we were all super excited when Mugsy finally showed up on camera at one of the humane traps! She even hunkered down inside one of the traps that had a blanket with her scent on it.
We made plans to assemble a surveillance team and kept checking the cameras. Days passed. Weeks passed. A month passed, and there was never another sign of Mugsy. By mid-November, when the snow began to pile up, all search efforts were suspended. It was hard on the family and hard on the searchers to let go of hope.
I learned later on, against my warning, that family members had been going down into the ravine (they found an easier route that could be accessed without rappelling) and they’d walk around the entire area as they called for Mugsy. I had previously instructed them to only go straight down to the cameras, pull the SD cards, restock the food, and immediately leave. I was clear in saying that Mugsy would become fearful of the snapping twigs and that excessive walking around in the area of the traps and cameras could chase her from the area, in the same way they had already flushed her out of the marshy area.
Sadly, that is exactly what happened. Mugsy was never seen again.
This case taught me that in complicated cases like this, rescuers should take over the searching and the trapping and should not allow the family access to the search site. This wasn’t the first time that a pet owner ignored our recovery advice, and, sadly, it probably won’t be the last.
WARNING: These mini “Solve This Mystery!” games are both educational and entertaining. They are mostly based on actual lost pet recovery investigations that either I worked, my students worked, or other search dog handlers worked with their search dogs. While I will never show extremely graphic photos, I will be very descriptive in my writing. The content of some of my cases may be upsetting, especially if you’ve experienced the loss of a pet or are easily triggered by death. If you want to compare my mini mysteries to standard mystery writing, my cases are more “police procedural” and “true crime” based and only sometimes are they “cozies.” And, in many cases, there have sad endings or have no closure because, frankly, that is often the nature of lost pet recovery. In many cases, lost pets are just never found.
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