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Associated Press, Published April 05 2010

Technology reunites pets with owners

ST. PAUL – When Murray the Chihuahua wandered off, Carmen Arett took low- and high-tech routes to get him back.

She papered her Minneapolis neighborhood with old-fashioned fliers. She also enlisted an Internet pet-finder company to blanket the area with automated phone calls about the missing dog, and in this case, technology prevailed. Murray was home within hours.

“We were just at our wits’ end on how to get this dog back and missing him like crazy,” Arett said.

Since 2007, www.FindToto.com has helped locate nearly 3,000 missing cats, dogs, birds – even a goat and a wallaby. It’s among a new breed of critter-tracking companies built on the idea that people will dig deep to retrieve a wayward animal.

“Think of the time it would take you to get a ream of paper, markers and tape up posters around your neighborhood,” FindToto spokeswoman Colleen Busch said. “We can have calls out to all of your neighbors in 15 minutes.”

The Brentwood, Calif.-based company charges from $85 to $875 to spray calls to as few as 250 and as many as 10,000 neighbors. The calls create a radius centered at the address where the pet went missing, using a home-phone database to pull in numbers in the area.

Company founder Dustin Sterlino launched FindToto after his cat, Cutie McPretty, went missing. While Sterlino’s cat was never found, about 7,000 pet owners across the country have used his service. Celebrities get free use, and the company boasts of having helped former “Baywatch” star Brooke Burns and Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio find their missing pets.

Arett spent about $300 to call several thousand homes. The phone message described Murray and left his owner’s phone number to call with tips. Within an hour, Arett had a lead on the dog’s whereabouts.

“Someone called me and said, ‘I know where your dog is.’ You have no idea how good it was to hear those words,” Arett said.

The calls aren’t selling anything, so the service is exempt from a federal do-not-call law meant to keep telemarketers from flooding home phones. People can opt out of future alerts at the end of the message.

The Minnesota Attorney General’s office, which handles complaints about calls with only an automated voice on the other end of the line, won’t disclose if there were any complaints against the pet finders.

Adam Goldfarb, who directs the Humane Society of the United States’ Pets at Risk program, said he’s seen a rise in companies using technology to aid in pet searches. Among them are GPS collar devices that track pets via cell phones and a rice-sized identification chip planted under the fur that can be scanned at most pet shelters.

The site www.lostmydoggie.com offers similar services as FindToto – automated calls to neighbors for a price. The year-old company has sent out thousands of missing-pet alerts, said company official Donna Lewis.

“It’s pretty amazing in this economy that so many people will still do whatever it takes to get their pet back,” Lewis said.

Goldfarb said people should turn to shelters and other traditional methods before call services.

Linda Fitts turned to FindToto when her dog, Willie, disappeared from her suburban Excelsior home this winter.

“It was one of those really cold nights,” Fitts said. “I had this picture in my mind of him out there, frozen.”

Several hundred calls went out to neighbors, and Fitts also called the local police, who had Willie at the station after he was found far from home. Fitts said while she considered the automated service useful, her experience shows even the new technology has its limits.

“He was farther out than our calls went,” she said.

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