Losing a pet is a heartwrenching experience. Our furry friends are part of the family, so when they’re not there anymore it can feel like a part of you is missing. This is why a Tennessee man became so emotional when he found out that his cat — which had been missing for years — had finally been found. And amazingly, what happened next warmed his heart even further.
When Knoxville resident Joe Drnec got the phone call in early 2022, he was initially lost for words. You see, he had been called by an Animal Services employee who wanted to know whether he wanted his lost cat Ebi back. The strange part? The last time he saw Ebi was seven years before… in Riverside, California!
The Drnecs are shocked
The shocked Drnec told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “It was quite a surprise to get that phone call. It brought my whole family to tears.” In truth, Drnec and his wife Leanna had resigned themselves to the fact they’d never see Ebi again. He admitted, “We went through the whole process of mourning. We thought she was gone forever.”
Going above and beyond
Now, it’s one thing to be told your lost cat is alive and well, but it’s another to find out she’s been found more than 2,000 miles away! Any kind of reunion would be a difficult thing to organize — not to mention costly. Amazingly, though, a good Samaritan then made an incredible gesture, going above and beyond to ensure a man and his beloved pet were reunited.
When it comes to getting lost, cats have got it down to a fine art. Think about it — how often do you find yourself wondering where your kitty has gone, only to eventually find them hiding in the back of the closet? Or how about when they go wandering for hours on end and you’ve no idea where they’ve been? They’re elusive creatures when they want to be.
A natural urge
In truth, the hiding is fairly easily explained — it’s a coping mechanism. Vicki Jo Harrison of The International Cat Association explained to Newsweek, “The most basic reason cats hide is to feel safe, and to protect themselves from things they perceive as dangerous or stressful.” In truth, their natural urge is usually not to fight if they feel threatened — it’s to run and hide.
Reacting strongly to change
Now, you may think you’ve done nothing to scare your beloved pet. But cats respond strongly to any kind of environmental change, be it a new child, a house move, or even another pet in the home — and it may make them want to hide. Harrison believes, “It is important to respect the time they need to take to feel safe and adjust to a new home or environment.”
Why do they wander?
What about the wandering, though? Well, there are many reasons why a cat might wander off to explore its local area. Interestingly, if it’s feeling stressed or scared it can get the urge to wander instead of hide. Sometimes, if there’s upheaval in your home, the cat may run away for some peace and quiet!
Another reason for wandering is a cat’s natural aptitude for hunting. While your fluffy kitty might look cute as a button to you, it’s actually a predator with a strong instinct that tells it to hunt and kill! So, if you haven’t seen your cat for a few hours, it’s probably out tracking down some unsuspecting prey — maybe a rodent, or even a small bird.
On top of that, cats have been known to disappear if they’re in heat. This process happens a number of times a year, and will see your cat becoming more affectionate, raising its hind legs, and maybe even urinating to mark its territory. The animal will also be in a frenzy to get outside because it desperately wants to track down a mate!
The spaying option
If you want to avoid this — like most pet owners do — you could have your kitty spayed. It’ll save you the worry of your female cat becoming pregnant with a litter of kittens, but it will also remove one potential reason for a cat to go missing. After all, if it has no interest in finding a suitor, that’s one less reason to wander.
Picking up scraps
Finally, your cat may have gone missing because it’s found someone else. As in, a person — maybe a neighbor or a kind restaurateur — who will feed them scraps if they come around! The hungry animal will remember where they have easy access to food and keep going back there. Hey, kitty’s got to eat, just like anybody else!
This is where things get tricky, though. While most outdoor cats love to wander if they get the chance, there’s every possibility they could wind up getting lost. Sometimes they encounter danger and sometimes they just get distracted by something and run off. This could lead to them becoming disoriented because they suddenly don’t know where they are.
Super hard to find
Now, because most owners know their furry bundles of joy can sometimes go missing for days and still return home safe and sound, they don’t tend to worry immediately. But here’s the thing — because of their agility and propensity for hiding in hard to reach areas, missing cats are super hard to find. So, if their time away stretches on, some owners then fear they’ll never find them.
The Lost Cat Finder agency’s Kim Freeman told the Bored Panda website this attitude can lead to trouble. She explained, “Not only do cat owners rarely report the incident — if the cat is not chipped — many owners simply assume the worst and do not perform a valid search.” Freeman believes this means missing cat numbers are actually much higher than what is officially reported.
Freeman continued, “Complicating matters ever further, when people do notice a new cat, they usually assume the cat is either dumped, abandoned, or stray — as opposed to the very likely category of lost.” She added, “Dogs run out in the open where people see them and worry. While cats hide, and even if seen, no one thinks twice about a cat out and about.”
The homing instinct
But what about the cats who manage to find their way home? How do they do that? According to PetMD, it’s all about their “homing instinct.” This is an innate ability to navigate back to their home territory and it’s something all cats have — even indoor ones. But here’s the kicker — some homing instincts are more developed than others.
Not all the same
If your cat is used to going outside, for example — and has had lots of experience exploring the area in which it lives — it should have a great homing instinct. An indoor cat, on the other hand, will certainly have some level of the instinct built in. But it will be nowhere near as finely honed as that of an outdoor cat.
How does it work?
Unfortunately, science hasn’t really come up with exactly how a cat’s homing instinct works. It’s mostly assumed to have something to do with their incredible sense of smell, which is even more developed than a dog’s. But research has suggested it could also have something to do with the geomagnetic fields of the Earth!
The maze experiment
In 1954 German scientists created an experiment in which they put cats in a maze. They quickly found most of the felines escaped the labyrinth at the exit closest to where they started — their “home” location. But after having magnets placed onto them, the cats couldn’t find their way home anywhere near as efficiently!
Interestingly, it’s also believed that cats have the ability to memorize routes they travel regularly. As they’re very territorial, they don’t usually stray too far from home either. So, this means many cats find their way home because they’ve got their local area — and the paths they use to navigate it — firmly etched in their memory banks. Cool, huh?
Old home vs new home
All this vaguely odd science is to say: yes, a cat may be able to find its way home if it gets lost. Studies have even found that, when cats go missing after moving to a new house, 30 percent of them will make their way back to their old house. That’s because they’ve spent the most time there and associate it more strongly as their home.
Time to adjust
This is why it’s always a good idea to keep your cat inside when you move house, at least for the first month. The animal needs time to adjust to its new surroundings and conclude that this is where they live now. Some younger cats or kittens can seem fine with their new space within a few hours, but older cats may need days to fully imprint on the place.
Ebi is returned
Speaking of moving house, this brings us neatly back to the Drnecs. The couple was so convinced Ebi was gone back in 2015 that, soon after she disappeared, they moved halfway across the country to Knoxville. Then, when the cat they last saw as a tiny kitten was returned to them, Drnec remarked, “She looks healthy and happy. She doesn’t look war-torn, like an outdoor cat.”
How was Ebi found?
So, what gives? How did Ebi wind up back in the Drnec’s arms over 2,000 miles away from where she got lost? And who had been looking after her for seven years? Well, when the kitty was brought into the Riverside County Animal Services by a member of the public, she had been found wandering in downtown Riverside.
John Welsh enters the picture
John Welsh, the public information officer for the shelter and a very important figure in this story, told Newsweek that Ebi was being cared for by — direct quote — “a mysterious individual.” That’s about as much as is known about who was looking after her, unfortunately. Welsh did add that Ebi was very affectionate, but quite skittish.
A thrilling little ‘beep’
Welsh knew less than two percent of lost cats were ever reunited with their owners. This is a horrifying statistic, but it didn’t deter him from scanning Emi in the hope she was microchipped. Thankfully, she was. He beamed, “We’re always thrilled when we scan the animal and get a little ‘beep.’”
Knowing what to do
When the chip revealed Emi’s owners had moved to Knoxville, Welsh knew what he had to do. He chuckled to Newsweek, “My brain went into automatically thinking I’m going to probably fly this cat to Tennessee.” He told WATE-TV, “It took us some time to figure out what we’re going to do… The logistics were basically me asking my wife, ‘Can I do this?’”———
Above and beyond
Amazingly, it wouldn’t be the first time Welsh had gone above and beyond to get a cat back to its family. In 2021 he had flown a cat to Oklahoma City to honor the wishes of an owner’s uncle. He even used his own funds to do it, as it’s against the law for an animal shelter to use taxpayer money for such a thing.
Welsh and Ebi go on a trip
So, on February 16, 2022, Welsh and Ebi caught a flight from Ontario, California, to Knoxville. He then hired a rental car and drove to a town called Bearden, which is where Drnec works at a Bike & Trail store. All in all, between the flights, car and hotel costs, Welsh spent around $1,000 on the trip — and he felt it was worth every penny.
Welsh told the Knoxville News Sentinel about the reasoning underlying his incredible gesture. He said, “I am using my personal time and money for this trek in the interest of promoting microchips and pet reunions. It’s not something we could do every day, obviously. But this was important because it’s a good way to promote microchipping, particularly for cats.”
Advertisement for microchipping
Welsh is right, to be fair — Ebi’s story is a great advertisement for microchipping your pets. It’s a simple process which involves implanting a small microchip under the animal’s skin. It can then be scanned by a veterinarian, who then receives a code linked to the owner’s address details on the microchip company’s database.
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association conducted a survey of 53 U.S. animal shelters in 2009. The results — as Welsh alluded to earlier — showed that less than two percent of cats without microchips were ever reunited with their families. By contrast, more than 38 percent of microchipped cats found their way back into their owners’ arms.
Fittingly for a man who cares so much about animals, there was another more personal impetus for the trip. Sadly, Welsh’s own cat had passed away not long before Ebi was found. He told Newsweek, “I know how much a cat means to people. My wife and I really took that hard. We don’t have any children and the cat was like our child.”
Ebi vs being indoors
Indeed, Ebi had also been like a child to the Drnecs — she was only three months old when they adopted her. The shelter they got her from had microchipped her, but they were told she had been feral for much of her start in life. This meant their attempts to turn her into an indoor cat were met with — putting it politely — some resistance.
Too much energy
“She had a lot of energy, too much energy for being in the house,” Drnec told Knoxville News Sentinel. “She was bouncing off the walls and kept meowing to go outside.” They began taking her outside — under strict supervision — and eventually started to let her go out alone. It seemed to be working out — until one day she just never came home.
Hoping for the best
The couple were distraught, but eventually began to accept what had happened. Drnec told WATE-TV, “We really hoped and prayed that she found a good home. That’s kind of what we thought in the back of our minds — she must have found a good home. I think that’s what people do just to kind of cope with it.”
No more risks
Drnec knew he and his wife had a very different cat on their hands when Ebi was returned, though — and they’d treat her accordingly this time. Drnec said, “Back then, she was just full of kitten energy. Now, I think she’ll make a much better inside cat. I’m not about to risk losing [her] by letting her outside again.”
A period of adjustment for Ebi
In truth, it seemed like Ebi, as much as her owners, would be in for a period of adjustment after such a long time away. Not least because the Drnecs still have Eunice, the 14-year-old cat they’ve owned since long before adopting Ebi. Drnec revealed the plan was for Ebi to stay with his parents — who live next door — while they reintroduce the cats to each other slowly.
A timely reminder
Overall, though, the couple said the experience had been a welcome reminder of the inherent goodness in people. Drnec told WATE-TV, “When you see so much bad on the news and in the world… You see something like this, it reminds you of the goodness in humanity and just there is so much goodness out there still.” Well said!