Rich Hepner stopped for the night at the Days Inn by Wyndham on Moffett Road. He was driving a U-Haul full of his in-laws’ belongings across the country from Florida to Wyoming, where they were moving to be closer to family. In the cabin with him sat their cat, Mitsi.
After a night of sleep, Rich was preparing to hit the road again. With Mitsi secured in the truck, he cleaned her litter box with his back turned to the vehicle. After about 10 seconds, he turned around to find an empty harness, just as he saw her disappear around the corner of a building.
It would be three weeks until Mitsi would be found safe again, though not at the hands of Rich, her owners, Norman and Alice Shamion, or any members of their family. Instead, Mitsi would be found through a collective effort of strangers — local members of the community who decided to step up and help reunite an aging couple with their beloved kitty.
“My dad — he’s kind of a man’s man, and I haven’t heard of him or seen him that upset in a very, very long time,” Derik Hepner, Rich’s son, said. “It was devastating for him to have to leave and to have to make that phone call.”
Rich called his wife, Joan Hepner, first to figure out how to break the news to Norman and Alice.
She was with her parents in Wyoming and wasn’t sure how she was going to tell him. First, she told Norman, and when she realized she wouldn’t be able to lie to her mom, she told Alice, who Norman said cried all day and night.
“I think she cried more on her own at bedtime than in front of everyone,” Joan said. “It was very hard on her, but she’s a good prayer and she kept praying and her and Dad just kept believing that she’d come home.”
Meanwhile, Derik was trying to find a way to help the situation, even from Colorado. On the advice of his wife, he began posting pictures of Mitsi on any local lost pet pages he could find.
“After a couple of days, it was incredible to see how many shares these posts had — like into the thousands,” Derik said. “It’s like, ‘Holy cow, people are actually getting on board with this.’”
On April 25, the day Mitsi went missing, Derik posted a plea on Facebook that has since gained over 1,700 shares, asking if anyone had seen the cat beloved by his grandparents. He included pictures of Mitsi being embraced by her owners.
“No story is going to be fun for a lost pet, but I think this one was unique because of the story behind it,” Derik said. “People really started to grab onto it.”
After a couple of days, he made a Facebook group of Mobile locals who were searching for Mitsi. He thinks there were around 20 individuals actually searching the area for the cat daily. He credits Michelle Huntington with being the driving force behind the volunteer operation.
“They didn’t live in this area,” Huntington said. “They couldn’t come back and find their own cat … That’s their baby. I just had to help.”
Volunteers like Huntington bought and placed several traps, cans of Mitsi’s favorite cat food and even a game camera, hoping to snap a photo of the cat during the night. As an indoor cat, they figured she would most likely not leave the area where she was lost.
There were days they were discouraged, Huntington said, but she knew firsthand it can take a long time for cats to be found. As a teenager, her cat was lost for 10 days, but they finally found him. It would take 21 days to find Mitsi, but Huntington felt it was possible.
After three long weeks of searching, Huntington finally found Mitsi, caught in one of the traps.
“I was just so happy to call Derik immediately,” she said. “He didn’t answer. It went to his voicemail and I was screaming into the phone, ‘We got her! We got her! We got her!’”
Derik was able to tell his grandparents over FaceTime, as Huntington cared for Mitsi and took her to the vet. In a video posted to Facebook, Norman and Alice are sitting down as Derik tells them the good news. Alice said she didn’t think she would ever see Mitsi again.
“Everyone kept telling me, ‘She’ll come back, she’ll come back,’” Alice said. “They were better at thinking positive rather than negative like I was.”
The next stage of Mitsi’s cross-country journey began, as volunteers drove her from Mobile to northern Mississippi, where Derik’s brother-in-law and sister met them and completed the rest of the journey to Wyoming, where she was reunited with her owners. She didn’t recognize them at first, Alice said, but now she wakes them up every morning.
“She’s wonderful,” she said. “We love her to pieces.”
Before Mitsi got lost, Norman taught her to kiss him by touching her nose on his nose. When she wanted a treat, she would give a kiss first, he said.
“And now when she came back after she was lost, she gave me five kisses in a row,” Norman said. “I just can’t believe that a wild animal — an animal, I mean — could think of doing that. But now my wife is out of luck. Now she doesn’t get any more kisses — the cat gets them all.”
After strangers took time at all hours of the day and night to find a pet for a family just passing through, Joan is happy Mitsi — and her parents — are happy.
“To me, the amazing story is the story of humanity really, how these people did that,” Joan said. “And strangers amongst themselves, how they came together as a group and they just never gave up. Those people are absolutely amazing.”
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