PennDOT Engineering District 8 in Harrisburg is home to piles of road salt and reinforced concrete pipes.
For about two months this year, it also was home to a miniature poodle named Cleo, who likely squeezed through holes in the fence and was living among the pipes.
Find Toby in PA, a nonprofit dedicated to reuniting lost pets with their owners in central Pennsylvania, got wind of a dog inhabiting the PennDOT property on Herr Street. Within about two days, Kim Bolden and a fellow volunteer were able to trap her in a crate with food.
What came next shocked even Bolden, who has six years of experience volunteering with Find Toby.
Cleo belonged to a family who thought that their dog had died shortly after going missing in late March. The cremated remains from another run-over pup (once a similar size and fur pattern to their own Cleo), sat in their home while the family grieved. Thanks to Find Toby, the real Cleo came home.
“They would’ve never found her if she wasn’t microchipped and registered,” Bolden said.
Find Toby’s mission is twofold.
On the one hand, the organization helps reunite families with lost dogs, cats and other pets. They do this with the help of administrative volunteers who manage the highly active Facebook page, but also with field volunteers unafraid to sacrifice a good night’s sleep for the sake of a lost animal.
On the other hand, Find Toby has a preventative motive. This means helping people with the often-forgotten step of registering a microchip, as well as informing folks about the need to keep newly adopted animals extra secure with a double leash on a collar and harness.
“Probably more than 50% of the dogs that I end up working with are recently rehomed or rescued within the last week,” Bolden said.
According to the latest data, Find Toby helped reunite 5,754 pets in 2019 alone. This includes mostly dogs, but also cats and other pets (think horses, birds, rabbits and reptiles). Since then, Find Toby has continued to grow in popularity and now is often the first place Harrisburg-area people go when they discover that their pet is missing.
And to think it all started with one dog, Toby himself, who, in early 2013, wandered lost for 16 days before the group’s original community found him and brought him back to his Mechanicsburg home.
Rachel Black, president of Find Toby, said that it took a couple of years for the organization to formalize. Born of necessity and grown on pure passion, the group today is a much more detail-oriented version of its earlier iterations. Facebook group admins volunteer from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. “and this is seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Black, who herself volunteers on holidays.
The admin volunteer training program teaches standard formats and responses that volunteers have curated over the years. Key field workers undergo Missing Animal Response Network (MARN) training for lost pet recovery.
By day, Black is a business analyst for Highmark. Her analytical brain has come in handy. When a dog, Charlie Bear, was lost in the Mechanicsburg area for four months, Black said that she looked at data and information to whittle down potential locations based on sightings.
Strategy is crucial in the world of lost pets.
“That dog is safer if it is calm, in a safe spot, even if it is still loose than if we scare that dog and make it run,” Black said, which is why Find Toby often keeps sightings on the down-low until the job is done.
Many owners are surprised to find that their lost dog may not approach them when it has been living as a wild animal for an extended period of time.
“They’re in survival mode now,” Bolden said.
Bolden, too, has a personality suited for the job.
“I’ve always been very calm,” she said.
That doesn’t mean that her work is not stressful, and Bolden emphasizes just how much Find Toby could use helping hands. With its growth comes a need for more people manning the Facebook page, watching live cameras overnight to help field workers get sleep, and even going out in the field to trap lost pets or refresh food and water.
Bolden’s story of capturing Cleo and returning her home to her once-mourning family is unique, but it’s not the only wild tale she has.
Whitney, a dog in Palmyra, escaped her home twice in a matter of days. She was captured both times, first by squeezing herself into a raccoon trap meant for a different critter, then by entering Find Toby’s own trap. A shepherd mix, Kisses, escaped in Annville while en route from the Carolinas to New York. She survived for 29 days in January before popping up in someone’s yard.
“We finally got her, and she smelled like cows and hay,” Bolden said. “So, she must have gotten into barns.”
Ultimately, Find Toby volunteers sacrifice time and energy, but they gain a community of animal lovers and unendingly rewarding experiences.
“The animals and the people that you’ve met always come forward with you, and it makes you a different person,” Bolden said.
For more information or to volunteer with Find Toby in PA, visit www.findtobyinpa.org or www.facebook.com/findtobyinpa.
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