Micha Porat was driving his car in Miami Beach at 1 a.m. not long ago when he saw a small animal, the size of a cat or a large rat, slow-moving but clearly alive, in the middle of the road.
Porat stopped in the middle of the street and got out of his car. A self-employed marketer who was on the way to a nightclub on Collins Avenue where he was holding a promotion, he is also an animal lover. He once rescued a Yorkshire terrier. The night before, he had rescued a large frog.
Marketing isn’t Porat’s only occupation. He also runs the popular Instagram account Gomi the Frenchie, which tracks the antics of his 2-year-old sandy-colored French bulldog, Gomi. Gomi has over 80,000 followers and a few sponsorships. Sometimes Gomi plays wingman to Porat and charms ladies on the beach. He likes to have pizza parties with other dogs and visit his great-grandma.
On the account, Porat is known as Gomi’s “daddy” and takes a back seat to his effervescent dog. “I say he’s my boss,” Porat said. But on this particular night, he took the lead and organized a group of strangers to rescue what proved to be not a rat but an 8-pound, partly blind and deaf Chihuahua.
Porat took the Chihuahua home, washed her in the kitchen sink (which he chronicled) and at 2 a.m. posted a photograph and video of her snuggling with Gomi. “We’re going to help her find her mommy and daddy,” he reassured his own pet.
By the time the sun came up, thousands of people had seen the video, and helped identify the Chihuahua as a 14-year-old named Osita belonging to Gustavo Briand, a salon owner in Miami Beach. Briand had placed photos all over his Instagram and Facebook accounts in his search to find her. A friend of Briand recognized the Chihuahua and a day later, Osita and Briand were reunited.
While Briand was thankful that dog lovers on social media helped him get his dog back, the amount of feedback overwhelmed him.
“This dog is like my daughter,” he said. “She sleeps with me. She’s part of me.” He was surprised, though, that “people were so much more into their dogs” than he was. “I was like, what kind of crazy thing is this?” he said. “But thanks to those crazy people, I found my dog.”
It may be crazy, but it has become a common story for pet owners all over the country. An animal is lost. A message or picture is broadcast on social media. Hundreds of concerned “friends” — some you may not have heard from since the 2016 presidential election — will repost on Instagram or retweet a lost pet notice without hesitation. The same fur fervor that causes people to mourn helplessly the death of Cecil the Lion, watch a runaway llama or consider depressed pandas at the zoo is in these cases channeled into helpful community activity rather than selfies.
One New Jersey woman was reunited with her cat, Jimmy, two years after losing him, once she spotted him on a shelter’s Facebook page. One dog, who bolted from his owner’s jeep at Country Thunder, a traveling music festival in Arizona, was back with his owner after a social media blast on Facebook and Twitter.
“Social media is changing the results of pet tracking,” said Adriana Bradley, 34, of Wantage, New Jersey, founder of the Lost and Found Pets in North Jersey Project, a Facebook group. “Just sharing one post on social media can help,” she added. “You don’t know who’s watching at that moment and looking at your post. All of sudden you see 400 likes. Then one person who recognizes the dog can say, ‘Wow, this is my neighbor’s dog,’ or ‘I know this dog.’”
Thousands of lost and found pet Facebook groups have popped up all over the country in recent years helping to reunite pets with frantic owners. (If your area doesn’t have one, don’t fret. Community Facebook pages are just as dedicated to searching for lost pets.)
One group, Lost Pets of the Hudson Valley, has 49,000 members, and eight volunteers run it practically round the clock. The group’s founder, Bentley Potter of Kingston, New York, whose day job is tuning skis at his family-run business, started the page after noticing an unreadable sign for a missing pet on a telephone pole. Sometimes, Potter said, pet owners will find their animals merely minutes after a photograph is posted.
“Without social media, I can’t imagine that this would happen that frequently or effectively,” he said. “So many people have told me that this is the only good reason for Facebook.”
Lost and found pet apps have also emerged: Paw Boost alerts shelters and rescuers, the Pet Safety App from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can help you build a shareable “lost pet digital” flier, and Finding Rover uses an interactive tracking map and facial recognition technology to search participating local shelters, over 200 so far.
But this newfangled digital cooperation doesn’t mean owners are absolved of basic precautions. Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president for research and development with the ASPCA, said collars and identification tags were still the most direct way to get a dog home, though only 33 percent of pet owners tag their pets. And then there are microchips: A study published in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association of more than 7,700 stray animals at shelters found dogs without them were returned to their owners 21.9 percent of the time, while microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2 percent of the time. (Microchips have their own set of problems, however, namely because they aren’t always registered to the right person or registered at all.)
Educating the public about how to rescue lost dogs is a continuing challenge. Kat Albrecht, a pet detective and former police officer who is director of the Missing Pet Partnership (she signs off her emails with “scent-cerely”), trains members of shelter staffs and Facebook volunteer groups using tactics based on those to find missing people.
Some steadfast rules: Don’t call the dog, get low to the ground, use the universal language of “Nummy, nummy, nummy,” and never chase. Though Albrecht has trained thousands of people over the past 20 years, she still hears stories about animal-control officers who will chase animals for hours.
This is when Albrecht began to cry.
Why was she crying?
“Facebook has revolutionized finding missing dogs,” she said. “But it just breaks my heart with how much more there needs to be done.”