Lola was gone.
The calico cat had wandered away from the Kalihiwai home of its owner, Dr. Fahy Bailey. Days passed, then months, but there was no sign of Lola.
“I searched and searched but couldn’t find her,” Bailey said. “I assumed she had been hurt by pigs.”
Last week, more than a year-and-a-half after Lola disappeared, Bailey received a phone call from visitors staying at Hanalei Bay Resort, who had recently been caring for a feral calico cat.
“They took her to the vet to see if she needed any medical treatment and found that she was microchipped,” Bailey said. When the veterinarian technician ran a hand-held ID scanner over the cat’s neck, Bailey’s contact information was revealed.
Within hours, Lola was home again.
“They called, and Lola and I were reunited. She’s happy, healthy and purring up a storm.”
Lola’s tale is one with a lesson. According to Dr. Becky Rhoades, executive director of the Kaua‘i Humane Society, it’s highly unlikely the cat would ever have been reconnected with her owner without the tiny ID microchip implanted in her scruff.
“The return-to-owner rate across the country is very poor,” Rhoades said. “That’s why the chip is so helpful in getting lost pets returned home.”
In an even more extreme case, a Boston terrier named “Mickey” who disappeared four years ago from his suburban Kansas City backyard was found in April, 1,100 miles away in Montana and reunited with his owners thanks to a microchip.
Chipping has become increasingly common, and is tied into the adoption process at many clinics and shelters, including KHS. A significant increase of chipping has been reported since Hurricane Katrina, which separated hundreds of owners fleeing the storm from their animals.
As the popularity of chipping has increased, so has the frequency with which animals are returned to their owners. Since KHS began advocating the process in 2001, the facility’s return-to-owner rate has increased more than 300 percent. Approximately 90 percent of the animals brought to KHS are lost pets. Those with ID chips are almost always returned to their owners.
Less than 20 percent of non-chipped dogs and less than 1 percent of non-chipped cats ever make it home.
KHS and the island’s veterinary clinics utilize the hand-held chip readers in their facilities, and humane officers are equipped with scanners in their vehicles, giving them instant access to where an animal lives and who its owner is in the field. KHS is the only public animal shelter on the island and also serves as the county’s animal control agency.
There are no regulations that require animals born in Hawai‘i to be chipped but all new dogs and cats entering the state are required by law to have ID microchip implants.
It only takes seconds to inject the chip, which is the size of a grain of rice, under the skin of an animal’s neck. It contains a bar code with a serial number. That number is tied to a database containing the information of the animal’s owner.
While dogs and cats make up the vast majority of microchipped animals, guinea pigs, rabbits and other critters adopted from KHS are chipped as well.
“It’s the form of ID that never falls off,” Rhoades said. While collars and tags can slide off or be removed, microchips provide permanent identification.
“We know that the animal is owned and, if the person has kept current with us, where they live.”
KHS’s database, which has been collecting owner information for more than a decade, currently holds information on some 30,000 animals, but Rhoades points out that the microchips are only helpful if the owner’s information is kept current in the database. If a pet owner moves or changes phone numbers, they’re urged to update their info.
According to Rhoades, a large number of lost hunting dogs are brought to the KHS’s Puhi facility, and those animals are rarely chipped or have ID. Not only do microchips allow the facility to reconnect dogs with their owners, they also prevent someone other than the dog’s owner from claiming the animal at the shelter. Dogs that aren’t reclaimed or eventually adopted as a pet are eventually destroyed.
Still, many hunters are hesitant to chip their animals citing, among other issues, the financial burden.
Animals that come through KHS are chipped for a flat fee of $5, the cost of the chip. Veterinarians charge an average of $35 to $40 for the visit and procedure.
Rhoades said at a “talk story” meeting held last year at KHS, a local hunter said he lost a hundred dogs a year, and the cost to chip each one was simply too great.
Some hunters begrudge paying fees for expenses incurred for housing their lost dogs when they are collected and brought to KHS. Many say they would rather find their dogs on their own or rely on help from fellow hunters. Traditionally, hunters have tattooed their last name inside their dog’s ear for identification.
Rhoades said dogs are only brought to KHS when their owner cannot be contacted.
“We strongly recommend that hunters chip their dogs because it’s a free trip home,” said Rhoades. “We’ll bring them right to their house. If we can call the owner from the truck and say we’ve got your dog, we can meet them and return the dog to them right there.”
Another concern with hunters is accountability. If a hunter gives a chipped dog to someone else and the new owner doesn’t update the information attached to that dog in the database, the original owner risks being held accountable for damage or problems that animal may cause.
Larry Saito, owner of the East Kaua‘i-based pig-removal business Hogbusters, said he has hunted for almost half a century. Until two years ago, the third-generation hunter owned as many as 13 dogs which he chose to tattoo rather than chip. Though he no longer uses dogs to hunt, he thinks chipping hunting dogs could benefit the hunting community.
“I think the chip is a good thing, in case they go to the humane society or someone else gets them,” Saito said. “Especially if it’s a good hunting dog. Hunting dogs are like family to a hunter.”
Saito adds that any perceived distrust between hunters and KHS should not be factors when both sides are working toward the same goal:helping the animals get home.
“It take more energy grumbling than to work things out,” Saito said. “Everybody should come to a point where we can all help each other out.”
• Todd A. Vines is the associate editor of Essential Kaua‘i, Kaua‘i Publishing Company’s visitor publication. He can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 256) or firstname.lastname@example.org.