La Jolla resident pulls out all the stops to find lost feline friend
It is pet owner’s worst nightmare: the realization that their cat or dog has gone missing. The fear is heightened for those who live on or near a canyon, where their pet may be lost, injured or worse — prey to a hungry coyote.
Such was the anxiety felt by La Jollan Jain Malkin, who was vacationing in Italy when her pet-sitter phoned to say her 10-year-old Siamese cat, Alex, had scampered off from her Lookout Drive home, perched above a densely vegetated canyon off Torrey Pines Road.
After searching Alex’s usual hiding spots, the pet-sitter finally peered over the balcony, where she saw the cat gazing up at her from the depths of the canyon — a tangle of brush difficult to access.
“Alex has never been outside before alone,” said Malkin, a consultant who helps design hospitals and other healthcare facilities. “I was frantic to get home, thinking he would hear my voice and come running. Boy, was I wrong. After much research and study I became aware that cats in this situation go into survival mode and do not recognize their owner’s voice or even their own names. The owner becomes one more threat to their survival.”
Upon her return, Malkin sprang into action, doing all the “obvious things” a pet owner does, contacting two companies to send cell phone alerts to residents within a half-mile radius of her home. She also contacted San Diego County Animal Services, posted a notice on Craigslist, contacted the company that microchipped Alex, and sent a missing cat poster to veterinarians, pet stores and shelters — far and wide, also posting a reward notice throughout the neighborhood.
Malkin also employed the services of Landa Coldiron of lostpetdetection.com (whom Malkin described as “Indiana Jones” with long blond hair) and private investigator/pet detective Annalisa Berns, who arrived from Las Vegas with their award-winning bloodhounds, Glory and Diana, to track Alex’s scent.
After picking up Alex’s scent from the cat’s bed and scratching post, the bloodhounds set off to establish a direction in which the cat likely fled. “At that point it is up to the bloodhounds; you follow them wherever they lead,” Coldiron said, noting that Glory headed into the canyon behind Malkin’s home.
Picking up Alex’s scent there, though failing to find evidence of a “coyote entanglement — fur, blood, limbs, we’ve found it all,” Coldiron said — Glory headed back up, sniffing out several houses in particular as places the cat had been.
Malkin said the pet sleuths “left me with trail maps and showed me where to sit and call him and where to (set up) wildlife cameras.”
One of homes the dogs honed in on belongs to Janet Rostovsky.
“We’d heard our neighbors screaming … all calling for Alex and then Saturday at lunchtime while I had my grandchildren here, Jain came through the door and told us her hair-raising story,” Rostovsky recalled. “She was quite excitable. We’d never met before, but we took her to heart.”
Rostovsky’s grandchildren were eager to join the search for Alex in the canyon. “We’d never gone so far down (into the canyon) and they wanted to go further, way down,” Rostovsky said, with trepidation.
Hillside Drive neighbors Diane Doyle and Anne Marie Sprinkle, whose properties form a triangle along the canyon with Rostovsky’s, allowed Malkin access to their yards at all hours — where she would cry out for Alex until hoarse, hold quiet vigil or set up cameras to record evidence of his whereabouts.
Days rolled by. “Jain kept telling me she was still looking, and my grandchildren kept asking about the cat,” said Rostovsky, who feared the worst. “I believed the cat was dead, I really did, and I believe she did, too.”
Then, nearly two weeks after Alex’s disappearance, the grandchild of Rostovsky’s housekeeper was in Rostovsky’s garden when she spotted what she believed was the same cat on Malkin’s reward poster, and phoned her. Malkin arrived and, with quiet excitement, confirmed it was Alex. However, when she went down to the garden to call for him, he had vanished again.
Malkin and her husband, Gary Watson, returned to place a humane trap for Alex, and Watson set up a video camera near Rostovsky’s garden that recorded possums and even a possible coyote wandering near the trap, but not Alex.
At the advice of a friend, Malkin decided to return and wait in a grassy patch by the garden with Alex’s favorite food — chicken soup — to entice him with the smell.
“About 15 minutes later, as I read my magazine, I heard licking sounds,” Malkin said. “I looked to my side and there he was! Skin and bones. I gasped when I saw his condition.”
Alex took off around the side of the house, into some weeds beside two trash cans.
“I followed him slowly so as not to scare him away,” Malkin said. “I kept talking to him non-stop, as if talking down a person who is out on a ledge wanting to jump. … He started vocalizing (Siamese are big talkers) and at that point I knew he recognized me. … I pushed the bowl of soup out ahead of me and he slowly walked over to it. When close enough, I threw a towel over him and scooped him up. He did not resist.”
Alex was dirty and had a puncture wound on his front leg, from another animal, Malkin suspects. “He was almost too weak to walk once I got him home,” she said.
Alex spent a day at La Jolla Veterinary Hospital, where he was bathed, received fluids and antibiotics, and had his wounds dressed. “He had lost 30 percent of his body weight in 23 days out there, but his blood work looked good,” Malkin said.
Word of Alex’s homecoming spread fast, with neighbors calling one another to share the good news.
“I’ve met so many neighbors that I didn’t know,” Malkin said. “People whose names I don’t even know have knocked on my door to ask if Jain lives here and then they’d hug me and tell me how thrilled they are I found Alex. Some even followed up the next day to see what his medical prognosis was.”
Rostovsky said the ordeal was both exciting and entertaining for her and her grandchildren — fortunately, with a happy outcome.
“No other person would have put the kind of effort she put into finding her cat,” she said. “I really take my hat off to her.”
Coldiron said Malkin was more persistent than most pet owners, who she said often give up their search after two weeks, due to full-time jobs, children or “grief avoidance.”
During searches, Coldiron said, neighbors often grow tired of her poking around with her hounds and asking questions. “We’ve definitely been yelled at a lot (during other searches),” Coldiron said. “They’ll say, ‘It’s just a cat,’ … Jain’s lucky she had really good neighbors. What a wonderful community! They let us into their yards with our search dogs and it was no problem.”