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Social Media Reunites People and Pets

Heather Potter, of White River Junction, founder of the Missing Pets of 
the Upper Valley Facebook page, with her daughter, Phoebe, and her dogs, 
Scarlet and Sophie.
(Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

Heather Potter, of White River Junction, founder of the Missing Pets of the Upper Valley Facebook page, with her daughter, Phoebe, and her dogs, Scarlet and Sophie. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Purchase photo reprints »

— Cheryl Bromley started crying the moment she saw Smokey on the morning of Sept. 16. The Sullivan County Humane Society’s president had received word that a gray, shorthaired stray cat matching his description had been seen in an area behind a hang gliding facility five miles south of downtown Claremont.

Now, here he was, responding to repeated calls of his name and the siren song of the opening of a cat food can.

“That’s what did it,” Bromley recalled. “As soon as he heard the can, he came running. I immediately put him in the carrier and he talked to me the whole way back to the car.” Bromley said Smokey, who had been adopted from her organization, was let outdoors too soon by his new owners and wandered off. For the 16 days he was lost, Bromley searched frantically and put up more than 50 fliers, but it was a relatively new approach that reunited her with the cat.

“We found him completely because of social media,” Bromley said.

“Without that, I would have never thought to look out there where he was.” One of Bromely’s fliers was displayed on a local online news site and a reader remembered seeing a gray cat near the hang gliding school. That person sent Bromley a message through her Facebook page, leading to Smokey’s recovery.

Increasingly in the Upper Valley, the Internet is being used to reconnect missing pets with their owners. The Norwich town listserv has included roughly 40 posts in the last year regarding lost or found dogs and cats, the town of Hartford’s Emergency Communications Center regularly posts photographs of lost pets on its Facebook page and West Windsor’s Lucy Mackenzie Humane Society plans to add a bulletin board to its website for lost and found animals.

The largest local initiative, however, is the Missing Pets of the Upper Valley Facebook page, launched in April by White River Junction resident Heather Potter. The 38-year old mother-homemaker-dentist has spent much of this year at home with her young daughter and is admittedly a bit of a Facebook “addict.” Each time one of her Facebook friends was missing a pet, Potter would spread the word online.

“It dawned on me there should be a local lost pets page,” said Potter, whose page adds about five friends daily and is closing in on 700 in total. “It’s a way for me to connect people, because you never know who sees the posts and remembers they saw a stray dog or cat running down the street.

“This can be an instant missing poster. When I post an update, hundreds of people see it and when they share it, who knows how many more people are exposed to that information? It’s like an Amber Alert for pets.” One of Potter’s online allies is Becky Stearns, a former Lebanon High School classmate and a communications dispatcher with the town of Hartford. Stearns works with Hartford’s animal control officer, uses a microchip reader and often combs through lists of license tags in an effort to reunite pets and owners. She’s also taken to sending Potter the animals’ photographs and pertinent details.

“She has them posted in about 30 seconds,” said Stearns, who estimates the town is able to return missing dogs and cats to their humans “about 95 percent of the time.” Occasionally, Stearns or a co-worker will shelter an animal for a short stretch to raise the chances for a happy ending.

“The Internet’s been huge for us,” Stearns said. “It gets the word out so fast and we’ve had several owners who called to get their dogs and said they saw them online.” Others who share missing pet pictures and information on Potter’s page include Lebanon’s Small Animal Veterinary Emergency Services Clinic, Thetford Town Clerk Tracy Borst and Lucy Mackenzie Humane Society administrators, although their shelter primarily handles animals surrendered by their owners, as opposed to those who have wandered away or been abandoned.

“We’ve found Facebook is a great way to connect to people daily or hourly or even by the minute,” said Alexys Wilbur, the humane society’s marketing director. “A year and a half ago, our page had 96 friends and now it has more than 300, so things have really progressed in a short amount of time.” The average number of direct shares per post on Potter’s page looks to be about 20, but she also exchanges information with administrators for pages such as Lost & Found Animals of Vermont, which has nearly 1,600 followers, and Granite State Dog Recovery, which has more than 10,000.

Heather Guy, the Lost & Found Animals of Vermont page’s founder, started it 14 months ago. An East Randolph resident who attends classes at Community College of Vermont’s White River Junction campus, Guy launched her effort by sending business cards to more than 300 pet-related organizations, including shelters, veterinarians and stores. She puts up about a dozen posts each week and said her page has been responsible for reuniting about a dozen missing pets and their owners.

“It’s a feeling of such relief and elation,” said Guy, who shares her residence with a dog, two cats, two ball pythons and three foster rats.

“I get almost as excited as the people who are getting their animal back.” So does Potter, who’s hoping to team with additional Upper Valley shelters, veterinary clinics and town animal control officers in the coming months. She has only to look at her own two dogs, a Shih Tzu and a Lhasa Apso, and imagine her emotions if they disappeared.

“They’re like my children and I would be heartbroken and want an army of people out looking for them,” Potter said. “The stereotype of Facebook is people flooding you with their kids’ photos or updates that they just went to the gym. People don’t realize the real potential to help each other and their pets.”