Meet the internet sleuths who track down lost animals.

Bailey, Lynsey Ellis’ beloved brown Aussiedoodle, is not an “official” service dog, but she thinks of him that way. He follows her everywhere. He lies on her chest when she’s unhappy. “I’m basically his mom,” says Ellis, 29, a Galloway resident who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. “He sleeps with me, and he gets upset when I leave.” 

So when Bailey ran off last year while a friend of Ellis’ was watching him, it was a devastating blow. It was midnight, and she was scheduled to leave in the morning to lead a church retreat in Tennessee, but she and her friends went looking for the dog, with no luck. 

As a group leader, Ellis couldn’t cancel the trip. But before leaving, she filed a missing dog report with Pet FBI. A few hours into the drive, she got a call: A man had found a dog that looked like Bailey, wandering in the parking lot of the Big Lots distribution center on Columbus’ West Side. Ellis’ mom picked up the dog. “It was thanks to Pet FBI that we got him back so quickly,” Ellis says. 

Read all the stories in our Columbus Pets Guide.

Pet FBI founder Maresa Fanelli knows what it’s like to lose a pet. When she was a child, her parakeet escaped, and she remembers the anguish. “I told myself I’d never have a pet again because it was so gut-wrenching,” she says. 

Much later, after Fanelli had retired from her career as a French professor, a feral cat she’d been feeding disappeared. She called a local shelter but was told that her chances of finding the cat through the shelter system were low. The number of animals dropped off at shelters each day was shockingly high, she learned, and there was no centralized system for tracking them. 

It was 1998, and the internet was just taking off. Fanelli saw potential there for connecting owners and finders of lost pets. A different kind of digital entrepreneur might have dreamt of millions in fees from grateful pet owners; Fanelli, dreaming only of millions of reunions, created an all-volunteer nonprofit and a free, searchable database. 

Pet FBI—the acronym stands for Found By Internet—grew quickly, expanding beyond Columbus to encompass Franklin County and then all of Ohio. Today, the service is available across the U.S. and Canada and works in collaboration with other organizations such as Helping Lost Pets, a map-based lost and found. In 2019, Pet FBI was responsible for 5,642 reunions. 

In addition to dogs and cats, Pet FBI occasionally reunites owners with tortoises, birds, small mammals and even farm animals. Pet FBI achieves its highest reunion rate—at least 40 percent—in Ohio, where its long history ensures it’s well-known. If your pet is one of the estimated 10 million that go missing each year, Pet FBI recommends a broad strategy: In addition to posting on its site, visit shelters in person, post on social media, call animal control and local vet clinics, go door to door and post signs around the neighborhood. Don’t give up too quickly; pets are sometimes found weeks or months after they are lost. 

And don’t forget to equip your dog or cat with an ID tag with your phone number.