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.
Chachas said he had a sinking feeling. His 7-year-old son had begged that they leave the cat in the city because he was afraid the animal might get lost, but Chachas ignored his pleas.
Chachas and his wife went into crisis mode. They left dozens of opened cans of cat food around the neighborhood, knocked on doors, made fliers offering a $5,000 reward, drove their Denali through neighboring cornfields in search of Buddy and left on all the lights around the house. The next afternoon, on no sleep, Chachas prepared to give his son the news that Buddy would not be coming back. That's when a local pet store owner suggested he call Lillis. Chachas, a managing director at his bank, soon found himself taking orders.
"She said, `You're well-intended -- now go undo everything you've done,'" Chachas said.
Lillis ordered the Chachas' to scrap the reward. A rich man doesn't need the money, she explained and a poor man who spots Buddy will see instead a bag of money with fur on it. He'll chase after the cat, likely terrifying it and then he'll hoard news of the sighting in hopes of getting the money later.
"Rewards are useless," she said.
Next: the fliers. A local man whose cat Lillis found now volunteers to design fliers for lost pets according to Lillis' strict specifications. She demands a minimalist approach: the word "Lost" above a large color photo of the animal, with a phone number below.
"We don't need to know the pet's life story," she said. "And in the picture, not the Christmas tree and the pet, not the child and the pet. Just the pet."
Lillis demands that fliers be affixed to trees and telephone polls with a minimum of 48 staples, so they can't be torn down.
Next: Lillis ordered all those cans of cat food picked up and told the Chachas' instead to buy a can of Figaro cat food, an especially aromatic brand, she said. Turn off all the lights around the house but one, Lillis instructed. Then place Buddy's litter box under that one light and open the can of Figaro -- loudly.
"There's not a cat in the world that doesn't know the sound of a can opener," Lillis said.
Chachas said he was skeptical, but desperate.
"We did everything we were told," he said.
At around 7 that evening, Chachas collapsed in a chair and dozed off. A few minutes later, his wife woke him. Buddy was outside.
John Chachas opened the front door. Buddy slinked in and summer was saved.
"Pat had the psychology of a cat, like she was one herself," Chachas said. As for Buddy, Chachas said, he'll be staying in the city this summer.