As surely as the Jaguars and the Hummers, as reliably as traffic jams and lines at the ice cream parlor, they start showing up in the Hamptons every June: fliers bearing the heart-rending images of lost pets. Fluffy, Buddy, Scrim and Shaw, Remy and Boomer; dogs, cats and rabbits, all gone.
Locals describe it as an annual epidemic. Pets that have spent most of their lives in apartment buildings in the city, with doors, elevators, doormen and leashes between them and trouble, catch a glimpse of the wide world outside their new country homes. And like that, they're off.
"It's too many to count," said Jeff McMahon, the owner of Town and Country Photo in East Hampton, which prints color fliers for desperate pet owners every season. "Summer's when the tourists come and lose their pets."
After the neighborhood has been cased, the pound called, after cornfields have been scoured, rewards offered and after the kids have been put to bed in tears, some sympathetic local will eventually let visiting pet owners onto a valuable bit of local wisdom. When a pet is missing out east, the first person you call is Pat, pet detective of the Hamptons.
And when these desperate souls take the locals' advice -- as they inevitably do -- a rugged smoker's voice with an Irish accent will answer the phone.
"Pull yourself together," the voice will growl, with a fierceness that will cow the most self-assured Nick and Tony's regular. "And do what you're told."
Pat would be one Pat Lillis, an iron-tongued Irish woman originally from County Cork who has spent the last 17 years in the Hamptons helping to find and care for lost pets. In that time, Lillis estimates, she has found hundreds of lost pets and not a few lost owners whose pets have been turned in to her and estimates her success rate at bringing pets in from the cold is around 60 percent.
Her biggest nemesis along the way has been what she calls "the retarded public," mostly city dwellers whose carelessness leads to the annual epidemic of lost pets in the Hamptons.
"Stupidity, stupidity and more stupidity," Lillis said, between puffs of a Merit Ultra Lights cigarette as she rolled through East Hampton in her silver 1984 Volvo wagon on weekday afternoon, on the way to post fliers for a lost cat. "Those are three reasons pets go missing in the world."
Lillis is a volunteer; she owes local veterinarians some $30,000 in spaying and neutering costs, she said and scrapes together a living by looking after people's pets when they go away. She calls her pet rescue operation Elsa's Ark, after her mother.
Every moment a pet spends loose in the wild presents a threat, Lillis said. Cars and trains can be deadly. Declawed cats and city dogs face the prospect of starvation. Animals picked up by local animal control officers are hardly much safer; the East Hampton pound keeps them for 10 days before putting them up for adoption or possibly euthanazing them.
Lillis said that in her experience, people careless enough to let a pet go loose will do nearly everything wrong when trying to find it.
That was the case last summer with a man named John Chachas, an investment banker from Manhattan who had rented a home in Bridgehampton with his family. Chachas and his wife were at a dinner party when the call came in from his young daughter back at the house: Buddy the cat was missing.