Lost Cat, Lost Heart
When a Pet Goes Missing, How Long Do You Look? How Much Do You Spend?
How Many Straws Do You Grasp?
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; B01
There are a lot of missing-pet posters on the telephone poles of
Takoma Park, but the one at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Sligo
Creek Parkway stands out. Where the standard is "Seen Our Cat?"
scrawled in runny magic marker, this one features sharp production
values, a clean design and a laminated coating. Then there's the eye-
catching reward: $1,000 for any information leading to the return of a
black male cat named Mugoddai.
And finally, on a poster that was tacked up in April, there is this
notable date: "Missing Since December of 2003."
Maxine Hillary refuses to give up on Mugoddai.
Three and a half years after her pet scampered off into a cold
December night, after almost $4,000 in newspaper ads, pet detectives,
animal communicators, infrared cameras, a laminating machine and
bilingual mass mailings, after chasing down hundreds of tips and
checking in each month with several local animal shelters, after a
hundred miles of walks and a three-hour stakeout in front of a storm
drain, Hillary is still not ready to consign her beloved pet to the
"My assumption is that somehow he's making it," Hillary said. "I just
can't believe he's dead. It just doesn't make sense to me."
This is not a tale of a crazy cat lady. ("I may be a crazy cat lady
one day, but I'm not one yet," she said.) It's the story of a
successful career woman with many interests who, admittedly, takes her
responsibility as a pet owner further than most.
A lot further.
"To me, this is not about having a cat; it's about finding the one cat
that I nurtured and loved since before his eyes opened," said Hillary,
who works on food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I
found myself walking around at 3 in the morning in the snow looking
for him. Part of me said, 'This is crazy,' the other half said, 'Your
pet is lost in a strange neighborhood.' He's my responsibility."
Hillary's love affair with Mugoddai began in 1997 on Guam, where she
was working as a journalist and teacher. One day, an elderly neighbor
asked her to investigate a mewling sound in his tin house. She found a
sickly newborn kitten in a rainspout, abandoned by its mother.
"I said, 'Uncle, you have a cat,' " Hillary recalled. "He said, 'No,
you do.' "
Hillary, who had no pets and didn't consider herself a particularly
devoted animal person, nursed the kitten to health, giving him shots
and pills and carrying him nearly constantly for a month.
"He needed so much care," she said. "I walked the floor with him like
She named him Mugoddai, a word in a Guam island language that
translates roughly as the gaga feeling you get when you see a baby or
a kitten, and they became inseparable.
Mugoddai stayed with her through several moves, from Guam to Arlington
County and eventually to Takoma Park in 2003. On Dec. 11, after
keeping him indoors for their first two weeks in a ba***t apartment
near Sligo Creek, she took Mugoddai out for a test walk in the yard.
"He was right next to me," she said. "Some traffic went by and spooked
him. He ran to the back yard. I haven't seen him since."
Hillary was devastated. She lost eight pounds in the first week. A two-
day snowstorm moved in, but she wandered the neighborhood day and
night. She slapped up a few posters but found the process frustrating.
"As much as we talk about spaying, neutering and vaccinating our pets,
we need to talk about what to do when they go missing," said Hillary,
who has become an advocate for pet identification programs. "My vet
would push toothpaste for cats, but they didn't have a microchip
Then she got methodical. With help from friends, she began knocking on
doors and put more than 1,000 flyers in neighborhood mailboxes. She
offered a reward, pinned cards on bulletin boards, posted notices to
local e-mail group lists. She blanketed telephone poles as far as five
miles from her apartment.
And she followed every tip. When a black cat was sighted near a storm
drain a few blocks away, she parked her car and settled in for a long
"I sat there in the snow with a cup of coffee for several hours until
I saw the cat," Hillary said. "It wasn't Mugoddai."
She placed several newspaper ads, she said, that prompted the "con men
and weirdos" to emerge.
The first was a pet detective (and part-time bounty hunter), who
"He came out with his truck and his dogs," Hillary said. "He charged
me a thousand dollars, and told me my cat had gone over the fence in
the back yard."
She paid another, Sherlock Bones, $250 for the same result.
Then came the pet psychics, the pet communicators, the cat whisperers.
"I don't believe in any of that," Hillary said.
"Well, I did try one or two of the communicators," she said. Nothing.
She even turned to dowsing, the traditional art of finding water. One
of Hillary's growing number of advisers told her that dowsers, who
don't always use divining rods, could also trace lost animals. She
contacted the American Society of Dowsers, and the group did some long-
distance cat dowsing.
The report came back that "Mugoddai is more than one and less than 2
miles from your house."
Hillary used that finding to leaflet a new area.
She also turned to more reliable science, buying an infrared camera
and motion detector switches. She hooked it up to a VCR and taped
everything that visited her yard each night.
"I'd sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and fast-forward
through it," she said. "I saw cats, but never my cat."
After 42 months, Hillary's search has matured into what she calls the
"maintenance phase," which includes keeping up her Web site,
http://www.moonsgarden.com/, sending out monthly flyers to the animal
shelters, regularly scouring the found-cats list on PetHarbor.com and
dropping the occasional bulk mailing of "Still Missing" postcards to
6,000 Takoma Park households.
She keeps a Mugoddai entreaty on her answering machine message. She
replaces the telephone pole posters whenever they become faded or, as
often happens, someone rips them down. After more than 1,200 days of
this, Hillary said she is careful to avoid Mugoddai fatigue.
"I've tried not to exhaust the neighborhood, but I want people to know
I'm still looking," she said. "I think I could go too far for some
And to the tentative suggestion that Mugoddai's most likely fate was
that same road traffic that spooked him on that winter night, Hillary
quickly replied: "Where's the body?"
"Many people know I'm looking for this cat," she said. "If he had been
hit by a car, we'd have found him. All the vets I've talked to say if
you haven't found a body, you can pretty much assume he's alive."
And as long as there's any chance Mugoddai might be out there, living
a feral existence along Sligo Creek, maybe, or a more comfortable
foster life in some distant back yard, Hillary will be looking.
"Will I still be at it 10 years from now? Of course not," she said.
"Will I still be looking a year from now?"
She pauses again.
"I just really, really would like to see him again. That would be