Pet detective services grow in China as cat and dog ownership rises, and experience counts more than hi-tech tools, says a veteran of the business

07-May-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

It could have been a scene from a Sherlock Holmes novel; two intrepid sleuths arrived at an apartment building, one with a flashlight in hand, the other with a device for finding their charge. They began scanning the place for life.

Soon enough, they have covered the entire building, marking where they found hair and prints. Diligently, they have inferred the movements for the past two days of the fugitive they were tracking.

Within two hours, they close the case. Hot on the trail, they spot the escapee a missing cat which they carefully detain and return to its worried owners.

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A technology blogger who wrote about their mission described a cottage industry that has mushroomed across China: pet detectives, who will leave no stone unturned to return missing companion animals to their rightful owners.

When his roommate hired the team of pet detectives in question to find the cat, the blogger wrote in February: “We had underestimated how professional they were”.

One such gumshoe is Wu Jiangang, a pioneering pet detective in Shanghai who started his business in 2013.

In this business, you shouldn’t count on equipment to find the animals. You count on experience

Wu Jiangang, pet detective

At that time, the field was largely unknown to the Chinese public, and Wu did not know where to start. Previously, he had worked as a chef at a Chinese restaurant and run a landscaping company occupations not remotely related to his new career.

In the beginning, Wu found it difficult to attract clients. He would walk around Shanghai, searching for people putting up notices about their lost pets.

Furthermore, he had little experience of tracking down animals. In these early days, Wu and his colleagues would simply wander around Shanghai with no real strategy for finding the animals.

Wu said he initially had about five clients per month, barely enough to keep his business alive. Even if he could not find the animals, he would still charge the clients.

Gradually, Wu learned from experience. Nowadays, he and his employees have established a standard operating procedure. When a client calls, Wu or a member of his staff arranges to meet them immediately to gather as much information from the owner as possible and determine the missing pet’s movements.

“We would ask the owners at exactly what time did the pet get lost and what specific species it was, because every type of dog might choose different routes,” he said.

For cats, the detectives ask whether they ran into the hallway or jumped out of the window. If the cat jumped out of the window, the detectives need to figure out from which floor because it would leave different marks on the ground.

Next, the detectives carefully scan the most likely escape route for clues, such as paw prints, fur, vomit and excrement.

Wu has an array of tools, including a drone and an infrared thermal imager, but he rarely uses them. More often, he makes do with a flashlight and self-made catch poles.

“In this business, you shouldn’t count on equipment to find the animals. You count on experience,” he said.

Cats are territorial, Wu said, so when they run away, they are usually within 100 metres of their home, usually hiding. When they crawl into holes, they typically leave a bit of fur on the wall, a key piece of evidence that often helps Wu find the pet.

So far, Wu has found hundreds of cats, and now he can tell whether a trail of evidence has been left by a house cat or a feral cat just by looking at it. Their vomit and excrement look different, for example, because feral cats and house cats eat different food.

Dogs take more time and energy to find because they run farther; the best technique is to ask people if they’ve seen the lost pet.

“We usually assign three members on a missing dog case; one watches surveillance tapes and two follow the route the dog took and ask around,” he said.

They also post information about the missing dog on social media groups and befriend courier drivers to increase exposure.

Sometimes the work not only involves animals, but tricking people as well. Every now and then, Wu finds a pet that a neighbour has taken. He has devised a method to get the pet back.

“You cannot ask them, ‘Have you seen my cat?’ Because they’ll definitely say they haven’t,” he said. “You’ll have to say, ‘I know my cat is here, could you return it to me please?’”

Usually, the cat-napper is so stunned to have been caught they simply hand over the pet. However, the owner rarely reports these people to the police, as there is no animal cruelty law in China and stealing a pet is not usually a punishable offence.

It’s obvious that Wu’s clients are emotionally attached to their pets and are willing to pay the equivalent of hundreds of US dollars for their services.

Most of the time, the clients are weeping when they report a missing pet and are beyond ecstatic when the pet is found. They also give Wu’s team a hard time if a search ends in failure.

One time, Wu’s team went to Suzhou to help a client find his cat. The client was in his late 30s and a successful real estate developer with large projects in multiple cities. Wu’s team could not find the cat the first day and went home for a break. The client then chided them.

“How could you go back when you haven’t found my cat?” the client said. “I raised the cat like my own boy.”

In recent years, the industry has grown exponentially, but the quality of service of operators varies, Wu said. Some companies overcharge, while others use their high-end technical devices as a selling point.

One reason for the growth in pet detective services is that the size of the pet market in China has grown in recent years.

A 2020 white paper from pet industry analytical company Pethadoop showed 100 million pet dogs and cats lived in China last year, and that the market for pets, pet goods and services was worth 206 billion yuan (US$31 billion).

As the number of pets in China has risen, so have the conflicts between pet owners and other people, and recently China passed an amendment to the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law to tighten restrictions on pet ownership.

With the expansion of the pet detection market, Wu is opening a new company in Guangzhou, southern China, this week. He hopes it can better serve pet owners in the city and surrounding area and at a lower cost.

“There’s no way I can let go of this business now; many old clients will find me,” he said. “Besides, I take pleasure in my work. Once you find the pets, you feel accomplished and happy.”


Category: China

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