July 6, 2023
BEIJING – Li Yuanyuan’s dog was missing. It was a little before 9 pm on March 14 when the Beijing mother stepped outside to get some potting soil for her flowers and the dog slipped away from her side in the darkness. After returning with the soil, Li casually closed the door, assuming that her furry companion had followed her back inside.
The 33-year-old cherishes the dog, named M Bean after the Chinese name for M&Ms. She brought the black Teddy Bear breed home from her husband’s place nine years ago while they were still dating. It was just 4 months old. Since her husband died in January as a result of COVID-19, Li has regarded the dog as more than just a pet.
“She is the solace my husband left for me. Just like the significance our daughter holds in my life,” said Li, who uses her husband’s photo as her WeChat profile picture, while the background image on her WeChat moments is a wedding photo of them holding hands.
Over the next two days, Li devoted every moment outside of work and sleeping to searching for her beloved pet until midnight, only to return home empty-handed, with no trace of the female dog.
Having turned to the internet in search of ways to retrieve her lost pet, Li stumbled upon the profession of pet detectives. Approximately half an hour after receiving a call for help on March 17, pet detective Zhao Hui knocked on Li’s door, to be greeted by her careworn features.
The 38-year-old became a pet detective for All Back Pet Search Technology Co in Beijing last year. “I enjoy intriguing and challenging work,” said Zhao, who uses the name “Against the Wind” on his WeChat account.
At first, he thought finding M Bean would be a straightforward task, considering the abundance of surveillance cameras around Li’s neighborhood. To make an initial assessment of where the lost animal might have ventured, Zhao first inquired about the dog’s personality, notable physical features and whether she had been neutered.
For instance, at a crossroads, a bold dog would likely cross the street, while a timid one might turn a corner. A friendly dog is far more likely to be taken in by a stranger, whereas a less sociable one would be more likely to roam the streets.
Communication with pet owners is not always smooth. Overwhelmed by the loss of their friend, some weep as they explain how important the animal is to them, and they are unable to answer the questions posed by the pet detective.
Some highly distraught people may even provide incorrect or misleading information.
On the back of Zhao’s right hand, there are two raised scars running from his wrist to his fingers. They are reminders of the time he trusted an owner who said their cat had a gentle temperament and attempted to capture it without wearing gloves. In another incident, Zhao spent two days searching for a dog with pink ears based on the photo provided by the owner. Later, he discovered that the photo was inaccurate because the owner had actually dyed the animal’s ears several months before so the pink color had mostly faded away.
Before setting out to search in earnest, Zhao made it a priority to determine whether M Bean was really lost, because he has encountered numerous situations where the pet hadn’t even left the house, had been secretly given away or abandoned by family members.
He was once engaged to find a flight attendant’s missing cat, only to discover that the animal had been secretly discarded by the woman’s mother. Despite being confronted, the senior remained tight-lipped about the cat’s whereabouts, leading to a heated altercation between mother and daughter.
To crack the case, Zhao shifted his focus from studying feline behavior to understanding human psychology. He discovered that the older woman had a habit of taking leisurely walks in a nearby park. Zhao searched the area but found no trace of the cat.
He found himself at a loss, but during a cigarette break he instinctively looked up and saw the cat sitting above him — she had been perched on a tree branch for nearly 28 hours without coming down.
In the case of M Bean, it was evident to Zhao that the dog was no longer in Li’s home. Surveillance footage revealed that the little dog had run around the residential complex several times without encountering its owner and had eventually dashed out of the compound.
However, what puzzled everyone was the absence of any further sightings of the dog by the surveillance cameras 200 meters away on either side of the community’s entrance.
“It couldn’t just disappear into thin air, could it?” Zhao asked himself.
He had no choice but to review the surveillance footage of the last time M Bean had been seen. This time, he noticed a man who seemed fixated on the animal. When the dog disappeared from the camera’s view, the man swiftly followed, walking out of the frame as well. After several seconds, the man reappeared, holding M Bean in his arms. Just as he reached the roadside, a black Ford SUV arrived. The man got into the car and it drove away.
However, the night shots made it difficult for Zhao to catch a glimpse of the license plate number. To make matters worse, the cameras that could have provided a clearer view were malfunctioning. As he watched the car approach a highway, Zhao felt a wave of despair wash over him.
Gaining access to surveillance footage is no simple task for pet detectives. Sometimes, the jurisdiction of cameras on different sides of a street falls under the responsibility of different police stations, requiring additional time for negotiation. Malfunctioning cameras and a lack of maintenance can further hinder the process.
Not everyone can grasp the lengths people will go to locate a lost pet. When Li, the pet owner, sought access to footage at the local police station, she was met with amusement as the officers jokingly questioned the value of such an endeavor for “just a dog”.
Just as he was about to give up, Zhao suddenly remembered his previous searches for cats and dogs in the same area. He recalled that a large camera was installed on the road the black SUV had passed down. He hoped that it would have a powerful light-suppression feature that could potentially enhance the visibility of the license plate at night.
He went to the police station, but as often was the case, he was denied access to the surveillance footage because he was “only” looking for a dog.
However, when he shared Li’s story, telling the officers about how her husband had recently died and how the dog was a genuine source of comfort, they relented.
The license plate number finally appeared. After checking the records, Zhao discovered the name and phone number of the owner of the vehicle, which was registered in Anhui province, about 1,000 kilometers from Beijing. Then, Zhao called the car owner.
Zhao is always relieved when he secures a happy ending. He has witnessed too many heartbreaking moments when pets were found to have been hit by cars and were lying dead on the roadside, while others had disappeared without a trace, leaving an eternal mystery about where they had gone.
In one case, a young woman in Yantai, Shandong province, posted search notices on her WeChat account every day. Her dog had run up into the mountains, and despite searching for two days, Zhao couldn’t find it. He suspected that the dog had most likely been eaten by wild animals in the mountains.
“My heart aches: I truly don’t know how to move forward,” the young woman wrote in a WeChat conversation with the pet detective.
“I know I still have work to do and a life to live, but my dog is part of my life. Its absence has taken a piece of my soul with it.”
Desperate pet owners may even turn to fortunetellers in the hope of gaining hints about their pet’s whereabouts. One owner told Zhao that a fortuneteller had informed her that her cat, which had been missing for 13 days, had run 4 km south to a place with water, where it was basking in the sun under a corner of a wall near a garbage dump.
The vivid description left Zhao feeling ridiculous. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Anyway, a cat couldn’t have run that far.”
Many years ago, Zhao lost a Corgi dog that he was unable to find. For a long time, his son sat on the balcony every day, looking down and eagerly asking him, “Daddy, do you think Dumpling (the dog’s name) will come back?”
When Zhao first became a pet detective, he was often moved to tears when he witnessed owners embracing their returned pets and shedding tears of joy. He would also feel guilty and blame himself when he couldn’t find a pet.
Nowadays, he sees his work more as a profession, and when he tries his best but can’t find the lost pet he accepts the situation with equanimity. He advises the owners to adopt the same approach.
Li was finally reunited with M Bean in Beijing. However, as the dog had been taken for ransom, it came at a cost of more than 10,000 yuan ($1,380), which was equivalent to three months’ salary. She didn’t tell her mother-in-law about the money she had paid out.
“I feel very fortunate,” Li said. “I believe that my dog’s life is worth that much money.”