We used a combination of tech and animal-trapping equipment to catch our young cat that went missing for a month during the December holidays.
Sometime in the morning or early afternoon on Friday, 8 December 2023, our two-year-old ginger cat Molly disappeared from our home in a complex in Pretoria East.
As she regularly does, our domestic worker had left the doors open for our two cats to get some fresh air in the garden.
Molly is not really the outgoing sort of cat, but this time around, she decided to go on an adventure.
Initially, we tried searching for her by walking all around the neighbourhood, calling her name, and shaking a bowl with cat food in it, as online feline experts had advised.
We also tried putting some of our unwashed clothes and her litterbox in the garden to help her smell her way home.
A flurry of social media posts ensued on ten or more missing pets Facebook groups.
We also printed out and laminated around 20 posters that we put up around the neighbourhood.
About four days after she had gone missing, we paid for a K-9 animal tracking unit to see if they could track her down from her scent.
While there was some initial success in detecting her smell under a car parked in our complex, where we also found her collar that had come loose, she appeared to have moved far away from our home.
A few days later, a lady who lived about 10 minutes away offered to lend us something we had not yet thought about — a cat trap.
These traps consist of a rectangular steel cage about one metre long and 30cm wide, with a floor divided into two sections.
The back part of the cage’s floor — the trip plate — is connected to a rod that is inserted in a ring on the cage’s door.
When the cat, or any other animal you might want to catch, puts just a little bit of weight on this part of the floor, the rod moves out of the ring.
With nothing to hold the door in place, it falls down. Another metal rod with two rings on both ends is attached to the outside of the door.
As the door falls, it slips to the bottom and blocks the cage from opening.
To lure the cat into the trap, we were advised to use canned sardines with tomato sauce placed on top of our cat’s regular dry food in a container attached to the back of the trap.
Little bits and pieces of the sardines must then be strewn towards the cage entrance to encourage entry.
The only problem was that we would have to monitor the cage to ensure that other cats or animals did not get trapped inside and that we could retrieve it once our cat was caught.
This was fine in our initial searching days within our own complex, but only because it was the holidays, and we could afford to spend long nights outside checking the trap from our car.
Even so, the process got emotionally and physically draining.
We realised we could put our TP-Link Tapo smart home cameras — two rotatable C200 models and one fixed-position C100 — to good use.
These cameras come with all the bells and whistles you would expect, including AI-powered movement and human detection, night vision, and cloud recordings.
Unfortunately, they were turned off at the time of Molly’s disappearance, as we are not comfortable with consistently monitoring our domestic worker.
The first challenge with using the cameras would be to keep them powered while deployed away from our home power sources.
Fortunately, thanks to load-shedding, we had already connected each to a mini-UPS or small backup battery to ensure they remained online during outages.
Secondly, the cameras had to be able to connect to the Internet.
We had a spare Vodafone mobile Wi-Fi (MiFi) router from one of my wife’s old cellphone contracts and a secondary SIM card with data.
To ensure the MiFi router could stay powered throughout the overnight trap-monitoring sessions, we connected it to a 10,000mAh power bank.
With rain frequently coming down in our nightly searches, we had to devise a plan to keep the camera, router, and backup batteries dry.
We used our cat carriers for vet visits to house the sensitive tech equipment, with the camera pointed out the door to the trap.
As an additional way to lure Molly to the trap, we put unwashed clothes inside the carriers.
We then set the cameras to send notifications to our smartphones whenever they detected movement.
We had no guarantee that our cat would actually go into the trap. In addition, there was the risk of the gear being stolen by a passerby.
To increase the chances of reacting timeously, I had set my Samsung Galaxy’s Modes and Routines to start playing a song on YouTube Music whenever it received a notification.
With tip-offs from neighbours and strangers in the area, we set up the trap and detection equipment in various areas around our neighbourhood probably well over a dozen times in the next few weeks.
At one stage, we used two traps and two cameras in different spots on the same night.
Our first “catch” was a neighbour’s frequently-travelling ginger cat we had initially thought was Molly from two earlier in-person spottings.
After identifying the owner, who had gone away for the weekend, he was returned unharmed except for an odour of stinky fish.
On another occasion, we caught something else entirely — a water mongoose — after we placed the trap next to a nearby nature reserve where another ginger cat had been spotted.
I will not lie; I was terrified of what would happen if I released the critter from the trap — which I did within minutes of him being caught. Rabies came to mind, for example.
Fortunately, he scampered off back into the reserve at breakneck speed once the door was opened.
As it turned out, the nature reserve was the right place to look, albeit in a spot quite a bit closer to home.
While we had walked through the reserve and called for Molly on several prior occasions, the chances of success were small due to its massive size.
On Sunday, 7 January 2024, a woman on one of the missing pet Facebook groups commented on a post that she had seen a ginger cat that looked like Molly hunting for something near one of the reserve’s walking trails.
She sent us a precise PIN location of where she spotted the cat.
This was probably around 1km from our house, so we tried calling for Molly again.
We saw no sign of her and headed back home to set up the cat trap and monitoring kit.
This time, we put it down in a spot outside the reserve’s fence near where the cat had been seen.
Victory at last
I did not have much hope for our chances that evening, as it had been raining on and off, and like most cats, Molly detested walking about in wet and cold weather.
But just before 01:00 AM on Monday, 8 January 2024, my phone started playing a song.
As I had done numerous times in the weeks before, I picked it up, saw the notification for movement detected on the camera and opened the Tapo app to check the recording.
This time, there was no doubt whatsoever — I could clearly identify Molly at the trap and sniffing at the camera in her carrier.
Switching to the camera’s live view, I noticed she had started moving into the trap.
Fearing that she might flee the scene before getting caught, we rushed and drove to the spot next to the reserve.
While on our way, we noticed that the trap had not closed properly due to grass in the way of the door.
Fortunately, this “soft” closure had also failed to spook her and she carried on eating the sardines like nothing had happened.
There was nonetheless a risk that she would be frightened off once we arrived, and as we had been told earlier — cats don’t fall for these traps twice.
After stopping the car, we quickly but quietly approached the trap before pouncing to shut the door properly. We had caught her — exactly one month after she went missing.
While she moaned all the way home, she quickly calmed down when we released her inside our house.
Besides being quite a bit thinner than when we had last seen her and proceeding to eat boatloads of cat food, she was in good condition.
The helpfulness of two strangers, a smart home camera, mobile Wi-Fi router, mini-UPS, and social media ultimately won the day.
But thanks must also be given to Eskom, without whom we would not have had the backup batteries in the first place.