De cat came back—thought she were a goner,
But de cat came back for it wouldn't stay away.
—Lyrics from "The Cat Came Back," a song written by Harry S. Miller in 1893.
It's a story that tugs at the heartstrings of all pet devotees: A cat given up for lost in 1995 has come home. As first reported by The Press Democrat, a gray and brown-tinged kitty with round, golden eyes named George was reunited with his Santa Rosa, Calif., owners last week after animal control officers tracked them down by scanning a microchip with identifying info implanted under the animal's skin. (See slideshow of George.)
Frank Walburg says his boy, George, now nearly 17, was but a shadow of his former self when found—weighing a paltry 6.3 pounds (2.9 kilograms), less than half the nearly 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms) he weighed the day he vanished over 13 years ago. He was also sick, suffering from a respiratory infection as well as toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease characterized by lethargy and weight loss, which can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
"He used to be like a heater on wheels," Walburg chuckles about his beloved feline friend, "like a lion in both appearance and walk," his wife, Melinda Merman, wrote on her Web site. Still, Walburg told the San Francisco Chronicle "there was no ambiguity that he was the same dude, no doubt about it."
George disappeared on June 23, 1995, back when Bill Clinton was president and Whitewater was in the headlines. Walburg says that he and Merman spent weeks scouring the neighborhood for him. They visited Sonoma County's five animal shelters every other day for six months, posted missing cat signs, sent flyers to and called every veterinary clinic in the area and offered a hefty $500 reward for his return. Alas, as days turned into weeks and weeks into months and months into years, Walburg says their hopes of finding George faded, "but we never stopped thinking about him."
"It was hard not knowing what might have happened to him," Walburg told ScientificAmerican.com, pausing to control his emotions. "We would imagine that he was just around the corner or trapped somewhere—and we would go and check."
And so one can only imagine how he and Merman felt last week when they received a call from Sonoma County Animal Care and Control: George was there, the message said. "We didn't know what to expect, we didn't know if he was dead or alive, because they also pick up animals on the road that have been killed," Walburg says, noting that he and Merman cried the entire 20-minute trip to claim him.
When they arrived at the county shelter, George was in medical isolation. "The routine practice is to scan for a chip and, if there isn't one, to make a determination on the spot" about an animal's fate, he says. "George was grossly sick, way underweight, he had watery eyes, was lethargic, not eating; there is zero doubt that since his health was so bad, they would not have been able to adopt him out to anyone and he would have been euthanized if it weren't for the microchip."
"He's home because of his microchip,'' Walburg says, noting that his wife, then a volunteer at the Humane Society (and now at Forgotten Felines, which spays and neuters feral cats and provides food for them until their natural deaths), insisted that George and his three littermates be micro-chipped when they adopted them in 1992. At that time, the technology was new and mostly used on dogs.
U.S. animal microchip manufacturer AVID Identification Systems, Inc., based in southern California, filed for a patent on the technology in 1985; the first chips were implanted into companion animals in 1989, according to Mary Metzner, AVID's shelter operations representative (who trains animal control officers and shelter personnel on how to properly implant and use the system). She says the rice-size radio-frequency identification (RFID) device is activated with a handheld scanner; the radio frequency used is 125 kilohertz.
Microchips are generally implanted under the skin over the shoulder blades in dogs and cats. Each one contains an identification number unique to that animal; every microchip sold is automatically registered (to the vet who purchases it) in PETtrac, AVID's national recovery data base, according to Metzner.
She says private veterinary clinics on average charge from $60 to $100, and shelters from $20 to $30 (and often much less) to implant a microchip and register a pet for its lifetime. The chip is encapsulated in biocompatible glass (the type used in pacemakers, stents and other medical devices) and has been tested to last for at least 75 years, according to Metzner, who adds that AVID has sold more than 25 million microchips. Among other brands distributed in the U.S.: resQ, HomeAgain and 24PetWatch.
Some studies in the 1990s found that tumors formed in mice and rats in tissue around where the microchips were placed. But Metzner said further testing has produced no evidence of a link between cancer risk and the devices, which are only activated when scanned—and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 found the process safe enough to be used in animals and humans.
AVID, when contacted by Sonoma County Animal Care and Control, traced the device in George to Northtown Animal Hospital in Santa Rosa. Walburg says they were lucky their vet had their number, which had been changed since the chip was implanted and registered. In some cases, there is a more direct relationship with pet owners, who can change chip ID registration contact info online.
"Our sole purpose is to bring animals home. So it's a wonderful feeling to know that the system works," Metzner says about George's long-awaited homecoming. "It's a miracle. We get over 1,000 calls a day of people finding pets and reuniting them with families."
She says this is one of—if not the—longest period between a pet's loss and recovery ever recorded. Among other success stories: a cat that had been missing from Los Angeles for a decade, found in Texas several years ago, and a dog missing from Panama, Fla., who was found six years later in Ohio.
"There's no way this reunion after 13 and a half years would have happened without the microchip," Walburg stresses, urging all pet owners to chip their charges and anyone who finds a stray to take it to the nearest shelter or animal hospital to have it scanned for one. He also believes that vets should routinely scan their animal patients to make sure the humans bringing them in are their rightful owners, noting that they might have found George sooner had that been done.
"It's a very reasonable amount of money for something that potentially can help bring your pets home if they lose their collar. But even if your pet is micro-chipped, it's still important to have a visible collar and tag on that animal with the owner's name on it to get it home immediately," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach at The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.
"It's pretty amazing," she adds about the George's homecoming. "If you're on the fence of whether you should or shouldn't get [a microchip], this would probably put a lot of people in the 'yes' column who weren't there before."
Walburg says that George was found at a mobile home park about 3.5 miles (5.5 kilometers) from their home, where he was turned over to animal control by the manager.
George was one of four kittens born to a feral cat that the Walburgs adopted. (They also took in their mom, who they had spayed.) Sadly, George's two brothers (twin Ira and Klaus) died two years ago from an intestinal disorder. But sister Grace is still alive (though Walburg reports she was more interested in George's special kibble than in seeing her long-lost brother when they were reunited) and George now has three new foster siblings—Foxy, Sam and Spook.
Walburg, a computer consultant and amateur winemaker who names some varieties after his cats (each bottle is labeled with a photo of its namesake; George will grace the next one), says that he and Merman are nursing George back to health, feeding him dabs of baby food mixed with chicken broth that he initially licked from a spoon and their fingers (but is now eating from a dish) and giving him antibiotics to clear up the toxoplasmosis. (See video.)
He says the cat spends most of his time in the guest room—which has been set aside for him—and that he's slowly but surely regaining his old vim and vigor – and has gained 3.5 ounces (99 grams) since he came home. (See video of George on the mend.)
About a year after George went missing, Melinda Merman wrote a "Letter to George" on her Web site in which she waxed poetic about his personality quirks, how he loved peanut butter and to bat at towels—and hated the rain. And how he always waited at the foot of their bed for them to wake up in the morning.
"There are so many things I miss now that you're gone," she wrote. "In fact, do you remember where you slept at night? On top of the bathroom towel cupboard. Remember your towel up there? Well it's still there. I have cleaned the top of the cupboard, but your towel is just as you left it. We will always wonder what happened to you. And we'll always hope you come home."
On November 5, 2008, she updated her blog: "George was found and returned to us. We are so thrilled to have him back in the family."