Pet FBI - The Beginnings
By Pet FBI founder Maresa Fanelli
Pet FBI Founder and Director Emeritus, Maresa Fanelli
1998…it seems like the dark ages now. No cell phones! No Facebook! No YouTube or Twitter. Fewer than half of all households had a personal computer and less than 20 percent had Internet access. Google had just been founded and search engines were still a bit clunky. We had just ditched our dial-up modem connection to the World Wide Web and switched to a major new national cable internet service provider. Little did I know that this change would set the stage for a remarkable journey.
We had a little family of feral cats in our backyard that we started caring for when a nearby farm stand shut down and abandoned them. Then two incidents occurred that made me rethink the way people try to recover lost pets.
First, Toes disappeared for a few days. Toes had seven digits on his front paws and six in the rear. I was fearful that a neighbor had gotten hold of him somehow and spirited him off to the shelter. I called the shelter expecting that he would be easy to identify. I could just ask if anyone had brought in a little grey tabby with extra toes from our neighborhood. But there was never an answer, and I soon discovered that most shelters were overwhelmed with animals, making it difficult to track down a specific pet. It was a rude awakening.
Fortunately, Toes came back a few days later.
The second incident involved a timid dog that had been sheltering under a neighbor’s deck for months. It was so thoroughly terrified it would not emerge, but these kind neighbors were giving it food and water. Then one day they happened to be in another part of town and saw an old tattered “lost dog” poster, barely legible, but the photo looked like the dog under the deck. They notified the people who came by and called out to the pooch. He came bounding out from under the deck and leaped into their arms!
My passion for helping lost pets began in my childhood. For my tenth birthday I was given a parakeet; a kind of consolation prize for a cocker spaniel that I really wanted but my mom thought would be too much trouble. When my parakeet escaped, it was the great trauma of my childhood - so much so that I vowed never to have another pet. And I didn't until almost 30 years later when the starving feral cats showed up.
I realized that the emerging Web could serve as a colossal electronic bulletin board, eliminating weather-beaten posters and allowing people from different parts of town to connect. That's when I decided to approach our Internet provider about creating a platform for lost and found pet reports. They agreed, but with a catch. All posts had to go through me, and I would have to key each one individually. They feared allowing users direct access!
That arrangement didn’t last long. It soon became clear that I needed to develop a database and establish our new organization as a non-profit. I could not find a lawyer to do it pro bono, so I did the paperwork myself. I hired a young web designer to create a website and a local company to host it and develop a very basic database. We needed a name, and I came up with a half dozen or so that I ran past the web designer. When I mentioned Pet FBI (Pets Found By Internet) he exclaimed, “That’s it!!” and Pet FBI was born - the very first Internet database for lost and found pets.
The next challenge was how to let people know about the free lost and found database on our website. Public libraries were a big access point for people without personal computers, so we reached out to public libraries and pet supply stores, distributing postcards and gradually gaining attention.
Our first major successful recovery was a pure-bred Akita (opens new window) who had taken off running while his dad was using a snow blower. He had passed through several hands and ended up with a family that saw our poster in a pet food store. They checked the lost reports - a long shot since the dog had been found months before. But it was a match! The story was picked up by the local TV station. That weekend Pet FBI got lots of publicity and reports came flooding in. So did happy reunions (opens new window)!
Inevitably I started getting messages from people who wanted to help. I had imagined that this was something I could personally manage, but Pet FBI took on a life of its own. It grew organically into a small organization. From my original intent to cover Columbus and Franklin County, the database was expanded to cover all of Ohio, searchable by county, and eventually the entire United States and Canada.
Today, Pet FBI stands as a testament to the power of compassion. What began as a small initiative in 1998 has grown into a nationwide network of dedicated volunteers working tirelessly to reunite lost pets with their families.