Meet South Florida's Real-Life Pet Detective

Fabio Vale moved from pole to pole with his stapler, posting fliers of his missing dog, Sheppie, an 8-year-old light-brown
boxer-shepherd mix. Vale loved his four-legged friend like a son. As a pup, Sheppie had fit in his owner's hand. Dog and master kayaked together almost every weekend. But this past November 28, he says, his wife burst through the door in tears, reporting that a strange man had kidnapped the dog while she swam at Crandon Park Beach in Key Biscayne.

Distraught, Vale scoured Facebook groups such as Lost Dogs of Broward and Dade County FL, as well as Craigslist's pet tab, where desperate owners share photos of their lost pets. Now two months had gone by. He was out of options. Except one.

His son had heard of a woman who might be able to help: Jamie Katz, a private investigator whose Fort Lauderdale practice focuses on finding South Florida's missing pets. "I never heard of a pet detective before or knew what they even do," Vale says. But he was desperate. "I needed to know what happened to Sheppie. I had to call her."

Katz, a petite 35-year-old with short dark hair cut in choppy layers, who typically wears ripped jeans and combat boots, picked up the phone. She refused to sugarcoat anything. "It doesn't add up. There are holes in your wife's story," Katz told him. She took his case pro bono.

Katz is South Florida's real-life pet detective. Every day, beloved animals go missing, but because animal shelters are overwhelmed and police are busy with higher priorities, pet owners are often left helpless, growing more frantic with each passing hour. Katz, a licensed private investigator with a background in criminal justice and a pair of scent-sniffing canines, has capitalized on solving a problem that otherwise has no good solution. Since opening her pet-finding business in September 2015, Katz has taken 88 cases and has been successful in 53 of them — 60 percent. With GPS technology, shoe-leather canvassing, and knowledge of the latest pet-napping scams, she has worked to recover roaming tabbies, stolen French bulldogs, and even a talking parrot.

Katz received a call from Michael Jordan's daughter Jasmine to help find her Yorkie/Pomeranian.

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For Vale, Katz skimmed through the missing-pet Facebook pages and groups in South Florida and posted Sheppie's photo on her own Facebook page, which has 1,651 followers. Then she scoured Craigslist.

She couldn't find a single Sheppie sighting. Next, Katz called shelters such as the Humane Society of Greater Miami and Miami-Dade County's Animal Control to check whether any dogs matching Sheppie's description were there — or had been euthanized. Nope.

Then, on a hunch, Katz searched news stories from the time Sheppie went missing. She stumbled upon an article about a terrible incident at the Crandon golf course. Armed with the story, Vale confronted his wife, whom he says confessed through tears and apologies. (She said she was still too distraught to talk for this story.)

Sheppie had been blissfully trotting behind her on that November afternoon. She and the dog wandered farther north on Key Biscayne than usual — through the beach, onto the golf course, and past three signs (which Vale's wife admitted to not having seen) that warned of a resident crocodile.

At the fifth hole, Sheppie spotted a team of ducks and darted toward them. They dove into a nearby pond in a loud, quacking panic. The sound woke a six-foot American crocodile. It slithered closer to shore and snatched Sheppie. The dog let out one long, guttural wail.

Vale's wife looked back, but it was too late: Sheppie's body was bisected in the reptile's pointy snout. Miami-Dade Parks and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials rushed to the scene. She was hyperventilating and choking on her tears. Paramedics were called to treat her. She refused help. Fearing how Vale would react, she alledgedly concocted her story about the dog abductor.

A week after coming to terms with Sheppie's fate, Vale visited the golf course. He made his way to the fifth hole and sat at the pond's shore. He called out Sheppie's name three times and walked away. He finally said goodbye.

His relationship with his wife is now strained. But Vale thanks Katz for uncovering the truth about Sheppie. "If it weren't for Jamie Katz, I would've never gotten closure," he says. "I don't know how she does it, but she has her ways."

Katz's tiny one-bedroom apartment in Sailboat Bend can feel like a big, spruced up, air-conditioned dog house. She shares it with her four dogs: two specially trained to track scents — Gable, a Brittany spaniel; and Fletcher, a terrier — plus a pair of shy sibling mutts, Arabella and Vega, that she rescued on vacation in Aruba. Four kennels, dog beds, and a full-size mattress belong to them.

For herself, Katz has modestly carved out a shelf for her files and a row of spiral notebooks arranged chronologically. Her dining room table doubles as a desk, weighed down with piles of papers and a printer. There's no art on her walls, just a collection of framed photos of family members posing with dogs and cats.

On December 28, the call came in for Mancha, a 2-year-old black Dachshund with brown splotches. Katz, wearing a hands-free device, paced on the sidewalk outside her home. She listened to Mancha's owner, Jenna Baggio, who explained that a pool man had accidentally left the gate open. Baggio, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista, scoured her Kendall neighborhood by bike. Nothing. She posted 300 fliers with Mancha's photo and her number. Still nothing. Ten days had passed, and Baggio was losing hope of ever seeing Mancha again.

"Jamie was my last resort," Baggio remembers. "I don't know what it is about Jamie. She has this confidence about what to do in a crisis."

First, as usual, Katz combed social media. It was crucial to act fast because in Miami-Dade, strays — or lost pets believed to be strays — that are taken to the county facility are held only three days before being euthanized. Every year, Miami-Dade Animal Services euthanizes approximately 7,200 dogs and cats. In Broward, there's no set time limit before animals are euthanized, but each year, about 6,000 dogs and cats are put down because of overcrowding.

Next, Katz designed massive yellow and red fliers. A good sign campaign is crucial, she says. "Everyone needs to know your dog is missing. A little piece of printer paper won't make people look. You need to make it so that no one can enter or leave your neighborhood without seeing your dog."

For Baggio, Katz created a flier advertising Mancha's photo, a $250 reward, and Baggio's phone number. She sent the paper to Staples to be printed 60 times and emailed Baggio a list of supplies to buy from the hardware store to post them: duct tape, wooden spikes, and nails. The following day, Katz gave Baggio coordinates of key intersections where the fliers should go. They were up within 24 hours.

"I'll offer any service that I think will bring back your pet," Katz promises. "I'll hold your hand the entire way."

Katz charges $95 per hour. Creating signs can cost as much as $285 and tracking with her dogs as much as $500. However, in many cases, she lowers prices or even works for free.

Katz grew up in the quaint city of Sharon, Massachusetts, on the outskirts of Boston. Her father, Gene, was a photographer for the New England Patriots football team and her mother, Debra, was a phlebotomist. Katz was the rambunctious middle child, wedged between two brothers. In the classroom, she struggled with paying attention and reading comprehension. She was placed in special education classes.

Around the neighborhood, Katz became known as an animal lover.  In the summer, she volunteered to help with rabies clinics. Katz was a tomboy, but to make money, she pedaled around town on a frilly pink bike she hated, hurling newspapers.

"Wherever we went, Jamie was always around animals," Katz's mother recalls. "She always volunteered and never collected a dime of it. She just did it because her heart told her to."

She idolized her pets: a towering Great Dane named Rex and a fat black-and-white long-haired cat named Blackjack. When Jamie was 8, Blackjack went missing. She rode around the streets and interrogated neighbors, but he was never found. "It must've been a coyote," Katz remembers her mother surmising. 

When Katz was 14, her parents divorced. Her father moved to Baltimore, and Katz followed. In the notoriously bad parts of town, stray dogs and cats roamed the streets. Katz couldn't help herself. In high school, she ventured out late at night, taking them in one by one. "I never understood that there were animals that didn't have homes, that people weren't out looking for them," Katz says.

Until she could find them homes, the strays stayed with Katz and her father. At one point, they housed five cats and three dogs. Landlords in Baltimore didn't share her compassion. By the time Katz graduated, she and her father had been evicted from three apartments. "Jamie couldn't walk away from an animal that needed help," her father says. "My lease allowed one or maybe two cats, and Jamie couldn't just put them back on the streets. So we moved."

After graduating from high school in 2001, Katz attended community college. She wanted to be a veterinarian but was roadblocked by a biology test she couldn't pass. She landed on criminal justice, "the first class that didn't put me to sleep." 

After earning an associate's degree, she worked for an animal rescue, saving strays in danger for $200 a week. She couldn't resist keeping Bernie, a Saint Bernard mix, and a fluffy white cat named Precious. For the next ten years, Katz stuck around Baltimore, working as a dog walker, and a pet sitter. For a while, she was paid $250 a day to take a rich lady's dog to the park for a few hours.

These gigs barely paid the bills, though. So Katz became a salesperson for a tire company. But after one especially long day in 2011, she opened her door to find Bernie, then 12, dead at her front door. Heart attack. Soon after, she left her job and went on a birthday trip with her dad to Fort Lauderdale. The weather! The bars! The beaches! Katz, 29 and with nothing to lose, decided to get her pets and stay.

But within a week of moving, two dogs she was caring for attacked Precious. When Katz found Precious under the bed, the cat's shoulder bone was jutting out of her fur. Katz froze. The shock and grief were as paralyzing as if she'd lost a family member: She forgot how to use her phone, her GPS, and even how to look up the nearest animal shelter. She felt frantic, helpless, and in denial. "I couldn't think straight. I didn't know how to do anything," Katz remembers.

Precious' death was a turning point. Katz flirted with a few more jobs — she worked as a bondsman, took her realtor's exam, and earned her private investigator license — but in 2014, she had a light-bulb moment: Pet detective could be her next career.

In 1994, actor Jim Carrey starred in the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a Miami PI who tracked down lost animals out of his beat-up 1970s Chevy Monte Carlo. Ventura's mission was to find the Miami Dolphins' stolen mascot, a bottlenose dolphin, before the Super Bowl. Ventura succeeds, but not before falling into a shark tank, feigning insanity to be admitted to a mental hospital, and giving the world a montage of over-the-top facial expressions and titillating hip gyrations.

The film raked in $107 million worldwide and spawned a sequel. Today, real-life pet detectives roll their eyes and blame the movie for dismissing the seriousness of the trade — but it really did launch an industry, experts say.

"I started doing this work in 1997, not too long after Ace Ventura came out," says Washington state-based Kat Albrecht, who is considered the godmother of pet detectives.

In 1996, she worked with police as a bloodhound handler in Santa Cruz, California, executing search-and-rescue missions by using her dog A.J. to track missing people's scents. Then, one day, A.J. went missing. "I needed my bloodhound to find my bloodhound," she remembers.

She had another hound smell one of A.J.'s toys that was covered in his scent. Within 20 minutes, they found him. "I knew he was in the woods somewhere," she recalls. "I just didn't know which direction to look. That's when I thought, Why aren't we training dogs to find lost pets?"

For the next five years, Albrecht took side jobs finding dogs and cats. In the wake of Ace Ventura, people understood the concept of this line of work. And the need for pet detectives was massive: Clients constantly lamented that animal shelters were of little help. Legally, law enforcement agencies typically treat pets as "property," so cases are low-priority for them. "It was an epiphany," Albrecht says. "I thought, This has to be a service offered in every community."

Dogs trained to detect termites for pest control companies cost about $7,000 to $10,000. Dogs suitable as K9 officers that sniff drugs and bombs reportedly cost between $2,500 and $10,000. Training canines for human search-and-rescue missions can run up to $20,000. In 2001, Albrecht quit her job to form Missing Pet Partnership, a nonprofit that trains animal shelters how to capture skittish cats and look for missing dogs — through free online courses.

Albrecht offers a ten-week, $600 online course that teaches aspiring pet detectives how to train scent-sniffing dogs. So far, she has taught more than 250 people across the nation and as far away as Italy, Ireland, and Japan. Any breed can be trained, she says, as long as the dog is friendly, because training requires playing with another dog and then finding it using its scent. Over time, the animals are trained to forget about distracting smells and to be diligent until they find what they are looking for.

Still, even though pets are a booming, multibillion-dollar industry that supports dog walkers, groomers, and supply stores, pet detectives are relatively few and far between. It's hard to imagine that someone would plan to profit off the vulnerability of a missing pet's owner, but the industry is unregulated. Whereas the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a certification program for search-and-rescue dogs, there is no such accreditation for pet-finding dogs.

Albrecht has heard of underqualified detectives and flat-out phonies who claim they are pet detectives, using untrained dogs to search yet charging as much as $16,000. "I would really caution people to stay away from pet detectives saying they're the best, or anything that doesn't seem realistic," she warns. "It's hard. You can't really tell by looking at someone if they're vetted or if their dogs are trained."

Though Albrecht hasn't worked with Jamie Katz directly, in the short time since Katz started her business, Albrecht has already "heard good things about her."

When Katz decided in 2014 that she would pursue pet detecting as a career, she had to go to the Midwest to find an apprenticeship with Lost Pet Professionals, a Nebraska-based organization that finds missing pets. She then bounced from Tennessee to Virginia and around the Midwest, tracking lost pets and returning them home.

That's how she got Gable, her goofy Brittany spaniel, and Fletcher, her stubborn terrier. She has spent the past year teaching both how to tell different scents apart and how to use a scented object to find its original source.

"Gable is like me," she says. "High-energy. We even have the same freckles. Fletcher is like me too, when I'm working. Serious. Focused."

Last September, Katz, Gable, and Fletcher returned to Fort Lauderdale. Katz didn't leave Lost Pet Professionals amicably. Her former boss there, Karin Tarqwyn, a 12-year pet detective, claims Katz is passing off Tarqwyn's techniques as her own. She says she plans to bring litigation against Katz for stealing her "intellectual property."

"Jamie is highly ambitious, and I'll tell you that she's good at what she does," Tarqwyn says. "She lives life thinking the ends justify the means. She feels that what she's doing is OK because she is helping people."

In Fort Lauderdale, Katz opened P.I. Jamie Katz. To spread the word about her business, she began by taking cases pro-bono from the Lost Dogs of Broward Facebook page, offering to help find lost dogs and cats for free. She wanted to get her name out. It didn't take long for the calls to come in.

In one hand, Jamie Katz grips Gable's leash. In the other, she clutches a tiny plush dog bed that's sealed in a ziplock bag. The bed belongs to a missing 4-month-old Chihuahua named Link. Gable is hot on the missing dog's scent, ping-ponging from one side of SE Fourth Avenue in Hallandale Beach to the other.

It's Tuesday, March 8, and Gable, a typically goofy white-and-brown spaniel, is all business. His orange vest is on. His pink nose is turned down. For the past 20 minutes, he has yanked Katz past a daycare center, in front of the police station, and through a trailer park. Sweat drips from Katz's freckled nose and drenches her red polo shirt, with "P.I. Jamie Katz" embroidered above her heart.

"He's not walking with his eyes. He's seeing with his nose," Katz shouts as she gives Gable a sip from her water bottle. He slobbers all over it. "I get worried when he stops to look at things."

A week earlier, the Chihuahua had run out of his owner's apartment building in Hallandale Beach. Two days later, his family — a couple with three sons — still couldn't find him. They posted their own fliers. After hearing a rumor that an old man had walked away with the dog, they hired Katz, who went through her usual steps and told the family to offer a $500 reward.

But after two hours of tracking Link's scent, there is still no sign of the pup. The session costs the family $405 anyway.

"It's not about the money. I'd pay anything to get Link back," says Alex Rivera, a truck driver. "My kids are just so sad. Every day, they ask where Link is. We don't know what to tell them anymore."

Katz stands wide-legged beside her silver Honda Pilot so the air conditioning can blast on Gable and Fletcher. She explains that her GPS recorded the route they walked. At home, she will input the points on her computer and get a better idea of what to do next.

"My dogs never lost scent," Katz assures Rivera. "That tells me that Link is nearby and wasn't picked up in a car and taken away. And you said you've never walked Link on those streets. My guess is that someone has him in the neighborhood and doesn't want to give him back. Your dog is very, very cute."

Rivera closes his eyes and nods.

"You can't make someone give you your dog back, but you can make someone want to give you your dog back," Katz says, putting her arm on his shoulder. "Next step? We need to print more signs and up the reward."

The pet detective has seen triumphs and failures.

In November, a pair of shih tzus was returned after being recognized from one of Katz's fliers in Miami. In January, a professional tennis player saw Katz's signs about a missing 8-year-old golden retriever and returned the dog two days later, declining the $500 reward. Once, Katz received a call from Michael Jordan's daughter Jasmine to help find her Yorkie/Pomeranian, Mila, who had run away from a pet sitter in Charlotte, North Carolina. Five days later, Mila was found after being sold for $40. Katz told Jasmine to call police, who scanned Mila's microchip and returned her back to her rightful owners. 

Katz finds cats too. In Jacksonville, she saved a black Persian named Dinkums from a sewer. In April, she helped rescue a silver calico from Coral Springs that was thought to have been lost but turned out to be trapped in a backyard tree. Another time, Katz used chicken broth to lure a tabby home.

Not all cases are so simple, though. On Craigslist and other sites, opportunists are looking to profit off South Florida's missing pets.

Sometimes well-meaning people mistake lost pets for strays and give them away before Katz can reclaim them. But others pick up wandering dogs, post their images, and then — because Craigslist prohibits pet sales — charge a "rehoming fee," sometimes several hundred dollars. More brazen thieves break into homes or yards to take pets, typically purebreds, and sell them online. Unless police have definitive proof that a pet is being held hostage, there's little they can do.

Such cases can be murky. In April, Katz got the case of Choco, a missing 9-year-old pit bull mix that had gone missing. The owners had received a call from an anonymous person claiming to know that Choco was being kept nearby. For proof, the person sent a photo of Choco panting inside a small cage. He demanded $750 to be sent through Western Union to divulge the address where the dog was being held.

For Katz, it was like negotiating with a terrorist. To give in and pay would be to reward extortionist behavior. It could be a ruse that led them nowhere. But not paying meant the family might never see its dog again. She ultimately suggested they do it.  At least Western Union would insist the tipster provide a real name and address — details that could be used by police.

The family sent the money. The person received the money — then stopped responding. Katz gave the man's name to police, and they are still working to find Choco.

Occasionally, pet owners get revenge. In March, Grant White's $2,500 white-and-black French bulldog, Dallas, escaped from his Fort Lauderdale backyard. Two brothers in Miramar found him wandering the streets. White grew suspicious when they asked him questions like "Do the surveillance cameras work in your neighborhood?"

Katz did some sleuthing and discovered they run a dog sales business. She advised White to call police. When the brothers agreed to fork over Dallas in exchange for the reward money, White paid by check. Dog in hand, he quickly canceled the check before it could be cashed. Fort Lauderdale Police determined that doing so was permissible, writing in a report that "since there were no official services or purchases made or rendered, any action taken regarding the check would be legal."

Sometimes outcomes are just sad. Once, an owner thought his green parrot, Toby, was stolen from his cage. Fliers were posted. Calls came in: one person spotted green feathers on the ground. Another had seen the parrot being carried away by a hawk.

Another time, Katz got a call about a cat that had stepped on a car's electric button that lowered the window. She was swept out as the car was going 70 mph on the highway.  A diabetic poodle named Clyde was missing for 52 days, but when Katz found him, it was too late. He had gone too long without insulin and had to be put down. There was nothing she could do. "His owner was an elderly woman. Clyde was all she had." In March, Katz a red-nosed pit bull she was been looking for turned out to have been shot.

Sometimes Katz has done everything possible — searched every database, done a reverse lookup on each number, sent her dogs tracking — yet the case goes cold. Link, the 4-month-old Chihuahua, is still missing in Hallandale Beach, and calls are coming in less frequently now that the city's code enforcement department removed Katz's fliers.

"These are the cases that kill me. They make me crazy," she says, using a tissue to dab tears from her eyes. "They haunt me and keep me up at night. I'm always still looking for them."

Because of Jamie Katz's big heart, even routine trips to the store are punctuated with drama. One time, Katz intervened when a boxer was trapped in a car in the Best Buy parking lot. It's illegal to leave pets and children unattended in cars. It was hot, and Katz worried. She opened the unlocked door and let the dog out, called police to let them know she was doing it (lest she be arrested for breaking in), then waited for its owner in her air-conditioned SUV. They were grateful, she says. 

Katz is never not working. She constantly answers calls, reads texts, responds to messages, and checks Facebook. If she's not on her phone, she's jonesing for a peek. This phone dependency has made in-depth conversations and steady eye contact — and thus dating — nearly impossible. "For me, it's not a job. It's a lifestyle," she says.

Though some of her prices may seem high, Katz has raked in only $27,360 since September. She hopes to one day earn more, hire additional staff, and move into a larger home with a big backyard for her dogs.

When the phone rings, Katz tries to tell herself it will be good news — a tip or excitement that a dog has been found. But deep down, she knows it's 50/50 — a call could be happy or devastating.

This past February 25, the phone rang. It was Mancha's owner, Jenna Baggio. Katz had all but given up on the Dachshund. Seventy-two days had passed without any sighting. Huge fliers with Mancha's photo were posted everywhere within a five-mile radius of her disappearance. The reward was upped to $500. Every tip was fruitless. Katz took Gable and Fletcher tracking. Zilch.

Baggio was losing hope of seeing Mancha again. So was Katz, who was out of leads. Still, Baggio called once a week to check in. So Katz thought nothing of it when Baggio's number popped up.

"Jamie, I think I found her!" Baggio shouted. She explained that a Spanish-speaking woman recognized Mancha from Katz's signs. She said she had bought Mancha at a Walmart in Kendall for $200.

"Tell her to send a photo," Katz advised cautiously.

Within minutes, the photo arrived. Baggio studied the brown splotches on the dog's head. The ones on her belly. Her snaggletooth. They matched.

"It's Mancha, Jamie!" Baggio yelled.

Fifteen minutes later, the woman dropped Mancha off at the Kendall Starbucks where Baggio works. Mancha squealed in Baggio's arms. She licked her face. Baggio broke down in tears. Everyone in Starbucks applauded. Some snapped pictures.

The woman declined the $500 reward. All she wanted was to be reimbursed for the $200 she had paid for Mancha. Baggio paid Katz less than a total of $300 for signs and tracking.

"It's like Mancha never left! I couldn't believe my baby is finally home," Baggio said. "I never lost hope. I never doubted Jamie. My only regret was not hiring her sooner."

At home, Katz asked Baggio to send a selfie with Mancha. Katz posted it to show her Facebook followers. "Breaking News!!! Just got the phone call...Mancha has been missing from Miami/Kendall area for 72 days and is now SAFE & HOME!!!"

"Likes" pour in. Katz sits at her desk and relishes this small victory. "This is why I do it," she says. "It's my dream."

Editors' Note, May 9: The original version of this story has been changed to reflect several misstated facts. Jamie Katz’s degree is in criminal justice. She graduated high school in 2000 and volunteered at a rabies clinic. Michael Jordan’s daughter is named Jasmine. As a child, her dog's name was Rex. Katz did not help deliver kittens, but brought home a weeks-old one. She does not call shelters, she visits them.  We regret the errors.
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Jess Swanson is the news editor at New Times. She graduated from the University of Miami and has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
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