Several weeks ago, Greenbriar Animal Hospital received a long-haired black and white cat from clients Carl and Kitty Brown, a Brookfield couple with a history of taking in stray cats.
Greenbriar's Dr. Candy Olson recalls first examining the Browns' latest stray. "A bunch of us looked at him and thought, 'Doesn't he look familiar?'" she said. But she admits that so-called “tuxedo” cats are rather common and she sees them on a regular basis.
GREENBRIAR TECHNICIAN Erin Potts waved an electronic wand over the animal, detecting the RFID tag of a microchip implant and displaying the animal's I.D. number. A call to the national hotline revealed the cat to be Oreo — who belonged to another Greenbriar client, the Rob and Robyn Rickenbachs and their daughters, Katie and Mia, of Chantilly's Waverly Crossing community, a quarter mile away from the Browns.
"When we take a pet to Dr. Olson, I hope a little kid isn't missing this pet," says Kitty Brown, after having cared for Oreo for three weeks before he returned to the Rickenbachs. "Because if you ever lost a pet, you would know the stress you feel losing something you loved, and it couldn't come to an end. If a pet dies, the animal is dead. But not in the case where the animal is missing."
Oreo had gone missing on Feb. 5 while the Rickenbachs were watching a UNC-Duke basketball game in their home, according to Katie. The family regularly let Oreo out with their dog Brindy, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, but that night Brindy came back in alone.
Over the next several weeks, the Rickenbachs searched the neighborhood, posting fliers, talking to neighbors and following leads. Even Brindy participated in the cat hunts. The family members kept their eyes and ears open as the weeks passed, but people were quite upset, remembers Rob Rickenbach.
WHAT MAY have contributed to Oreo's disappearance was a winter storm in early February, according to Olson, explaining that traumatic events like bad weather can have a disorienting effect on animals. "It kind of messes them up," she said, which may be why Oreo couldn’t find his way home.
But according to Kitty Brown, storm sewers may have been a factor. "Underneath this town there are a lot of sewers. From what I surmise, these little cats come up from some of these [sewer] entrances and don't know where they are," she said, trying to explain why the catch basin behind her house — a concrete yard inlet that drains excess storm water — is a hot spot for lost kitties.
"There's a little note [down there that says]: 'See the Browns, they'll feed you,'" says her husband, Carl, but Kitty will tell you there really isn't such a note. What he means, she insists, is that they will see to it that any poor animal that emerges from that storm sewer will be fed and looked after. She then described how she cut a hole in the fence big enough for a cat to crawl through and into her yard. She keeps a dish of water, and bedding, in a small doghouse on her porch for the strays.
This is how Kitty met Oreo.
"I can hear them crying," explains Kitty about the cats in the storm drain. "I have to go out and call them out." Which is what she did about Oreo four weeks ago. She coaxed him out of the sewer into her home.
She made an effort to find the original owners by posting notes at Giant Food Store, but after a few weeks, she made an appointment for Oreo at Greenbriar. The Browns' last four cats came from that storm sewer, and Oreo was looking to be the fifth. "We were buying him toys and finding out what he liked to eat," she says. "He loved to jump up on our laps."
Dr. Olson recalls when the Rickenbachs first came in to get Oreo. Robyn Rickenbach hadn't told her 15-year-old daughter, Katie, a freshman at Chantilly High School, about the nature of the errand, but when Katie arrived at the animal hospital and saw Oreo, she burst into tears. They brought Oreo home for the reunion with the rest of the family.
"MY MOM made it a surprise after my track meet," explains the Rickenbach's 8-year-old daughter Mia, a second-grader at Lake Anne Elementary. "Then once I got home, I saw the cat box from the vet open and we checked around everywhere and he was sleeping in his bed."
Kitty Brown, insisting that she was only Oreo's foster parent, says that returning the lost pet "was the most joyous event I have ever experienced. I know what it is to lose a pet," she explains. "I don't know who has the greatest joy — the ones who lost him or the ones who found him."