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[LLG] How this 'cat detective' finds missing felines

Cats, timid by nature, don't usually wander far away from home. Often, they may be hiding in or near house, says Cho, who claims 90% success rate in solving cases

July 10, 2024 - 10:35 By Shin Ji-hye

Cho Sung-min poses for a photograph with his cat, Aeyong, in Huam-dong, Seoul. (Lim Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Cho Sung-min is a cat detective. His job is to locate house cats that have wandered from home and return them to their worried owners.

When a client calls, he comes equipped with an array of tools like high-performance flashlights, selfie sticks, endoscope cameras, scoop nets, cat traps and even crowbars, in case he needs to open manholes.

But it’s not the apparatus that matters. It’s knowing where to look that truly makes him a successful cat detective, he said.

“Cats leave home simply out of curiosity,” said Cho, 50, in an interview with The Korea Herald. “The outside world is mysterious to cats, unlike dogs, which are walked every day."

Usually, cats go missing from low-rise "villa" housing or freestanding houses when the windows or doors are left open. Or a cat will run away when their owner tries to take them out for fresh air or a walk.

Every case begins with a thorough examination of both the interior and exterior surroundings of the home. He sifts through heaps of items, carefully inspecting every nook and cranny for any sign of the missing feline.

“Cats are very timid. The moment they step outside, they experience a mental breakdown," he went on. "They can’t go far away. They are usually found within a 30 meter radius of their home.”

When a broader search is necessary, the detective strategically charts the potential path a cat might take from its last known location. This route typically follows along any walls. Cats love pressing their body against walls and tend to navigate along them. Along this path, he meticulously inspects every crack in the wall, storm drains or unattended piles of items.

Sometimes a cat will hide inside a car’s engine. How does he know when there’s a cat there?

“When a cat is stressed, it sheds. Then the fur can be seen under the car,” he explained. “Also, when they are very scared, the smell of their urine and feces becomes extremely strong.”

Images provided by Cho that show missing cats hidden in a car engine (clockwise from top left), behind a flowerpot and inside walls.

Cho claims to have found more than 100 lost cats so far, recording a success rate of about 90 percent.

The 10 percent of cases in which he is unsuccessful, he elaborated, involved "adventurous" cats. While most cats are timid, there are exceptions, particularly among male cats, which exhibit more dog-like behavior, occasionally wandering far from home.

One common mistake people make when their cat goes missing is trying to lure them back home with snacks the cats used to like or other treats. This approach, according to Choi, is wrong.

“Cats, when frightened, show little interest in food, no matter how appetizing it looks or smells. Instead, such food may attract other stray cats, making it harder to locate the one that is lost.”

What should one do then, aside from hiring a professional like him?

“Place sheets soiled with the cat’s feces or urine around the house and leave the windows open. Cats with a good sense of smell will find their way back home following the familiar scent,” he advised.

Cho Sung-min poses for a photograph in Huam-dong, Seoul. He is holding a magnifying glass as a prop. (Lim Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Before turning professional, Cho was a cat lover who looked after stray cats for many years.

His interest in cats began about a decade ago, when he encountered an abandoned cat near his house on a very cold winter day. Worried it might freeze to death, he brought the cat home and took care of it.

From then on, he became deeply attuned to the plight of stray cats. Vulnerable to road accidents, harassment by humans, hunger, thirst and harsh weather conditions, these cats captured his attention. He began to look after them by providing food and water. As he earned the nickname, “cat daddy,” people in the neighborhood frequently asked him to rescue abandoned cats.

About five years ago, he decided to turn his passion into a profession and embarked on a career as a cat detective.

The pricing for his services is very straightforward. Clients pay 200,000 won ($146) up front to initiate the case. Wen he finds the cat, an additional fee of 200,000 won is applied.

Spring is a busy season for him.

In the winter, when people keep their doors and windows shut, his work slows down. In spring and fall, when many leave their windows open, he receives anywhere from one to five calls per day.

To his knowledge, there are six cat detectives in Korea, including himself. One of them he trained personally.

Cho conveyed a message of caution to cat owners.

“Please don’t walk your cats. Install cat-proof windows and doors because cats can tear through mosquito nets to get outside,” he said.

“When lost, think from the cat’s eye level. If I were a cat, where would I hide? If you stay calm and look, you will see it. If you panic, you won’t notice it even if your cat is right in front of you.”

Cho Sung-min poses for a photograph in Huam-dong, Seoul. The binoculars are a prop. (Lim Se-jun/The Korea Herald)