01 May 2019

At 9 a.m. on Friday, 3 February 2017, just as my assistant, Sam, had settled at her desk, booted up her computer and taken her first sip of espresso, the telephone rang. I was outside on the Bramble Hill Farm driveway, preparing to exercise Molly in the early-morning sun. My cocker spaniel had woken up in a particularly frisky mood – so much so that she’d knocked over my girlfriend Sarah’s favourite Lladró vase in the hallway – and she needed to run off some excess energy.

‘UK Pet Detectives,’ said Sam, picking up the phone. ‘Can we help?’

‘I really hope so,’ replied a glum male voice. ‘Our cat, Rusty, has gone missing. We’ve looked everywhere, but there’s no sign of her. We’ve hit a brick wall, really, so we thought we’d give you guys a call.’

Tim was a graphic designer who lived in the Hertfordshire city of St Albans with his physiotherapist girlfriend, Jasmine. They were saving hard for a deposit for a two-bedroomed house, but in the meantime were renting a modest first-floor apartment in a quiet cul-de-sac. The couple shared a love of cats and had gladly welcomed little Rusty into their lives, a black, white and copper rescue moggy with almond-shaped eyes and a long fluffy tail. Since the flat was pretty cramped – many of their personal belongings were still boxed up –  they often let their cat outdoors; there, she’d mooch around the crescent, lazing on driveways and sitting on doorsteps, neither straying too far nor staying out late.

The previous Friday, however, Rusty had failed to turn up for her weekly treat of steamed haddock – she adored her fresh fish – and her owners were totally flummoxed.

‘It’s just so out of character,’ Tim told Sam. ‘We’ve spent the whole weekend searching in streets and  gardens – we’ve even printed out leaflets and posters – but she’s nowhere to be found. We’re at a total loss.’

‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ said Sam, who – being a cat owner herself – genuinely felt their pain. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll have a word with my boss and I’ll get back to you.’

She promptly bounded over to the large sash window and yanked it up.

COLIN!’ she yelled, causing Molly and me to stop dead in our tracks as we strode towards the meadow. ‘Make sure you pop in after your training session. Think I might have found Molly’s first proper job . . .’

test

It was important that I found out as much as possible about the area so as to give Molly and me the best chance of locating the missing cat.

Fast-forward half an hour and I was sitting in the office discussing Rusty’s disappearance with Sam while a bushwhacked Molly enjoyed a snooze. I felt my pulse quicken as my colleague reiterated her conversation with Tim and outlined the missing pet’s circumstances. If our inaugural cat-seeking assignment was to be a success, the search conditions had to be as favourable as possible and this seemed to tick all the boxes. Firstly, Rusty came from a single-cat household, thus enabling me to obtain a decent hair sample and giving Molly the best chance of isolating the scent and matching it to the lost cat. Secondly, the puss had been missing for less than a week, which increased the likelihood of finding it alive. Also working in our favour was the fact that the weather was calm and settled, unseasonably so, in fact, for early February. Any excessive winds or any form of precipitation (rain, snow or mist, for example) would dilute the cat scent and would interfere with my dog’s ultra-sensitive nose.

Luckily, as a former serviceman, I was well versed in all things meteorological and geographical. Prior to my long career in the police force I’d spent over a decade in the Royal Navy, which had prompted a serious interest in weather, climate and coastal navigation. I had studied all subjects voraciously in my cabin on HMS Illustrious, expanding my scientific knowledge of air masses, frontal systems and cartography, for instance, and had become something of an expert. Little did I know then how useful this knowledge would become in the world of pet detection.

‘From what we’ve seen, we think you’re both ready for your first proper search,’ they’d said, causing a tingle to shoot up my spine. ‘Your interaction and teamwork are excellent and, as far as we’re concerned, you’re good to go.’

Now, following Sam’s phone conversation, I finally faced the prospect of solving a live search with Molly by my side. I felt a mixture of exhilaration and trepidation. I had spent so much time and energy developing my innovative cat-detection-dog idea –  it had been five years in the making –  and, having eventually found my perfect sidekick, I was desperate for that conclusive ‘proof of concept’ to make all our hard work worthwhile.

‘This could be it,’ I said to Sam. ‘This could be Molly’s first test.’

‘Oh my goodness, how exciting!’ grinned my colleague.

That evening I spent an hour or so on the phone to Tim, obtaining as much background information as possible. I asked him whether there’d been any triggers that might have caused Rusty to flee (upheaval in the household, for example, or a marauding feline foe), but Tim was adamant that, as far as he was concerned, nothing had changed.

‘The elderly lady who lives in the opposite flat died last week, which was quite upsetting,’ he said, ‘but other than that, things have been pretty humdrum around here.’

As for sightings, they’d drawn a blank in their own neighbourhood, but that morning had received calls from two separate witnesses in a village located a few miles away who claimed to have seen a cat answering Rusty’s description in their respective gardens.

‘I doubt it’s our cat, because she’s never, ever roamed that far,’ admitted Tim, ‘but we’d still like you to investigate, if you don’t mind.’

‘I’m more than happy to help,’ I replied, before casually mentioning that I’d be accompanied by a canine colleague.

‘My cocker spaniel, Molly, will be coming, too,’ I said. ‘She’s got a decent sense of smell and she doesn’t yap at cats so she might be quite useful. Hope that’s okay with you.’

I was purposely downplaying things, so as not to heap any pressure upon Molly, or myself.

‘No problem,’ said Tim. ‘Anything that might help us find Rusty is fine with me.’

I burned the midnight oil that evening, poring over digital maps, plans and photos of the St Albans area as Sarah slept beside me. It was important that I found out as much as possible about the area so as to give Molly and me the best chance of locating the missing cat. When I felt myself beginning to nod off, I shut down my laptop and went to check on Molly, as I did every night. She sensed me peering through the gap in the door, raised her head and drowsily opened one eye.

‘We’ve got a big day ahead, young lady,’ I whispered, ‘so I’ll see you bright and early in the morning.’

Yeah, I know, Dad, Molly seemed to say, so how’s about letting me get some sleep?

She held my gaze for a couple of seconds before curling up tight and continuing her slumbers.

  • Molly and Me

  • AS SEEN ON BBC BREAKFAST

    'The real-life pet detective' Sunday Mirror

    Read the extraordinary tale of how a dog and her owner became the ultimate pet-detective duo . . .

    When ex-policeman Colin Butcher set up his own pet detective agency to search for lost and stolen pets, he quickly realised he needed a partner.

    Enter Molly, an unloved and unwanted cocker spaniel he spotted on a rescue website. Clever and charismatic, she melted Colin's heart and the two became instantly inseparable.

    Colin's detective skills combined with Molly's intelligence, tenacity and sense of smell made them the ultimate team and it wasn't long before they were cracking cases and solving crimes across the country.

    From the search for Pablo the ginger tom cat kidnapped in Devon, to unearthing a treasure trove of stolen jewels in a north London wood, the duo have countless exciting adventures and make plenty of new friends along the way.

    Charming, moving and thrilling, Molly and Me is the story of a rescue cocker spaniel with a troubled past who - thanks to the love and devotion of her owner - finds a new life, purpose and a forever friend.

  • Buy the book

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