After Molly McFadden landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia in early October, she experienced every travelling pet owner's worst nightmare: Her cat Milo's carrier, she found, had broken during her Lufthansa flight from Germany to Washington, and the 3-year-old tabby was nowhere to be found.
"Milo went missing while being transported from the tarmac to international arrivals baggage claim," McFadden wrote in a Facebook post Oct. 7. "Despite best efforts, including extensive searching in the area, flyers, tracking dogs and humane traps, Milo has yet to be located, and he has now been missing for 5 days."
For weeks thereafter, McFadden documented airport rescue attempts via a Facebook page she created called "Milo Is Missing." She enlisted the help of Dulles crew, professional trackers and community members who kept their eyes peeled.
Milo, though, proved evasive, dodging capture and trapping locations for months.
USDA Wildlife Services were called in hours after Milo's escape and conducted daily searches of the airfield, but there were no sightings in October, according to Ryan Stewart, a wildlife biologist at Dulles. Then, in early November, hope arrived.
"I got a call from the USDA that 4 of their workers saw Milo on Dulles property, about 800m from the runway in a little patch of woods," McFadden posted Nov. 8.
A thermal imaging device picked up Milo wandering the airfield grounds, but after McFadden and the search team came within 30 feet of him, he slipped off into the woods, Stewart said.
Rescuers then focused on a 1,000-acre area near where Milo first disappeared, Stewart said, and after a few one-off sightings, the search paid off: Milo was cornered in a culvert underneath an intersection, and a sardine-baited humane trap facilitated his capture.
"I have been waiting so long to make this post and couldn't be more excited about it - guess who's home for the holidays!!!" McFadden was finally able to write in a Facebook post Friday. "And thanks to everyone who followed for their support and well wishes. The little guy is so lucky to be loved by so many people."
McFadden said the whole experience was "horrible," but she's elated to have found Milo. She acknowledged early on that the odds were low for recovering a lost pet given the circumstances. She credits the support she received from professional animal trackers who worked with the airport team.
Having moved back home from being stationed overseas, it was difficult for her to know where to start. "I didn't have the resources and the community to deal with it in the ways I would have liked had he gone missing in my own neighbourhood," she said in an email.
Though McFadden feels relieved now, she recounts feeling anger, hopelessness and frustration at points during the process, and admitted to not feeling optimistic in the moments before she learned he had been found.
"It was the best and most unexpected surprise," she said. "My main takeaway from the experience is that persistence is key, and that it's important to start building a support network right away when you lose a pet, especially when the animal in question is lost at an airport or other facility with restricted access."
Once Milo was found, thousands of "likes" and messages of support and relief poured in on the page. "He looks like he's amazed he's back home!" one commenter said. "I'm crying happy tears for you and Milo," wrote another. "I hope he's in good health after his adventure. Welcome home Milo, you had so many people rooting for you!"
Others involved in the search efforts said they were grateful to have helped.
"Anytime we can catch an animal and return it to their owner, it's an awesome feeling," Mike Stewart, vice president and manager of Washington Dulles International Airport, said in an email. "I spoke with the owner several times during Milo's Dulles excursion and became personally invested in seeing his capture through. It's an awesome feeling to know he was safely returned in time for the holidays."
"We are very happy that Milo was returned to his owner," said Christina Semmel, a spokesperson for Lufthansa airlines.
As for Milo himself, McFadden said he's "doing well" outside of being a little tired after his more than two months in the wild. And she's happy he's been reunited with his brother Beau, too.
For people who may experience something similar, McFadden said the more awareness that can be built early on, the better odds of rescue, and that finding support from communities who are passionate about animals to rally around a missing pet makes all the difference.
"If it happens to someone else's pet in the future, especially someone returning home, I hope I can be as much help to them as everyone was to me," she said.