How a North Texas pet detective helps reunite missing animals with their owners
Trish Copenhaver couldn’t sleep. It had been nearly a week since her cat, a Russian blue named Bleu, disappeared.
She was “completely frantic” waiting for her best friend to come home, she said. So by day five of posting on Nextdoor for leads and digging through pet lost-and-found websites, she started researching pet detectives.
One pet detective wasn’t free right away but told her she’d be in good hands with Bonnie McCririe-Hale. She’s the best at finding cats, he told her.
McCririe-Hale, who lives in Grapevine, is licensed in Texas as a private investigator but she specializes in finding lost pets. She often works in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, along with her trained search dogs, Idabel, Kaio and Buck, though she handles calls in other cities, including Houston, Austin, Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge.
When a pet owner calls McCririe-Hale for help, she first needs to know how long the animal has been gone. If it has been more than two weeks, she won’t take the case unless there have been reliable recent sightings of the pet.
Copenhaver said McCririe-Hale wanted to know about Bleu’s behavior and anything that might have caused the cat to leave his Austin home, where he lived indoors but was allowed to roam outdoors, too.
“She actually pulled up my address and looked at satellite photos of all my area,” Copenhaver said. “So she understood the predators in the area, construction — everything. She just really did quite a bit of research to understand what she was up against.”
Before McCririe-Hale made the drive to Austin, she asked Copenhaver to prepare her neighbors for the search by asking them to let her dogs sniff around for signs of Bleu in their sheds and garages.
The dogs spent about four hours making the rounds through the neighborhood, discovering many of Bleu’s hiding spots but no sign of the cat.
They were about to drive to a nearby retirement community to keep looking when Copenhaver got a text: “Is this your cat?”
“We FaceTimed, and it was him, and I said, ‘Would you mind just sitting with him and petting him and holding him?’” Copenhaver said.
Although McCririe-Hale claims no credit for finding Bleu, Copenhaver says the pet detective’s efforts made the difference.
“The collective energy of what we did that day is what found him,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
‘She’s there to support you’
A missing dog in St. Louis got McCririe-Hale into the pet detective business. A couple visiting from out of town had their car stolen — along with the dog.
They were offering a $5,000 reward, and McCririe-Hale called to offer to help. “I don’t have your dog, but I have a car. I could drive you around to shelters. I could do something,” she said.
She organized a group of volunteers to help find the animal, and after the couple hired someone to bring in a tracking dog for the search, she was intrigued.
“I was running along with the tracking dog and doing a little math in my head of how much she made vs. how much I made, and she looked like she was having a lot more fun with her dog,” McCririe-Hale said. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna try this, I’m gonna figure out how you learn how to do this.’”
Since training with Kat Albrecht, a prominent investigator of missing pets, McCririe-Hale has been in the business for about 15 years.
Before then, she’d followed a “nonlinear career path,” she said, including work in psychotherapy. That training is useful in her current work. Finding missing pets isn’t all detective work; sometimes it means helping owners sort through their emotions.
Often, people tell her they don’t know whether to feel hopeful, or whether they should be grieving or panicking. Sometimes, they suffer guilt because of something they did that led to the pet getting loose.
“Some people get into this work because they want their dog to perform miracles,” she said. “But sometimes the miracle is just between you and the human, helping them feel OK about the mistake they made.”
McCririe-Hale helped Jorie Wages bring her 2-year-old Havanese dog home earlier this month after he disappeared from a friend’s home in the Bluffview area of Dallas, near Love Field.
McCririe-Hale didn’t find Wages’ dog during an on-site search, but McCririe-Hale continued to coach her from afar. When Wages finally had Coal in her sight again, Wages was able to coax the dog back into her arms and take him home.
“She doesn’t fluff you up, she doesn’t give you information that’s false hope, but she also doesn’t let you go into the spiral of, ‘Oh my God, they’ve got to be gone because they’ve been missing for two days,’” Wages said. “She’s almost the perfect layer of support that you need when you’re going through this. She educates you, but she’s there to support you.”
McCririe-Hale’s cases are about evenly split between dogs and cats — but “we find so many more cats than we do dogs,” she said.
“Cats are ever so much easier to find and quite predictable in some of their behaviors,” she said. “The main thing is they’re there to find.”
She and her search dogs are often there when a missing cat is tracked down, but it’s much rarer for them to walk up on a missing dog.
The last one was Aubrey, a golden retriever who had vanished from her home in Gainesville on the Fourth of July, apparently spooked by fireworks.
Shane Nichols called McCririe-Hale on July 5, and she was out searching the next day.
One of McCririe-Hale’s dogs, Idabel, trailed Aubrey through a wooded area, along a stream and across a busy highway.
“I’m thinking, Idabel, I hope you know what you’re doing,” she recalled.
They arrived at an apartment complex and Nichols spotted something out of the corner of his eye: Aubrey, sitting at the top of a stairway.
“It was a very amazing moment,” he said. “I’m not gonna be able to put it into words — I get goosebumps talking to you about it.”
McCririe-Hale said the experience of finding Aubrey will stay with her “for the rest of my life.”
She works every weekend and nearly every holiday, and the job can be emotionally difficult when a pet doesn’t turn up or is found dead. But sharing the joy of reuniting pets and their owners “is just nothing short of spectacular,” she said.
“I don’t know anywhere else to get that,” she said. “I just can’t find one other place in this world to observe or be part of, or help to bring about that kind of joy.”