By Tommy Hallissey
Danielle Cioti happily hugs her dog Bella after they were reunited — with the help of a pet detective — on June 25.
Forget Ace Ventura. It took a real life pet detective to reunite Danielle Cioti with her seven-yearold pug, Bella, after the dog went missing at the Riverdale Equestrian Centre on June 13.
Working for Rescue Ink, an animal welfare organization, a retired police detective — who simply calls himself Angel — doggedly tracked Bella’s movements from Riverdale to Yonkers to Elizabeth, N.J., before arranging a tearful reunion on June 25.
Ms. Cioti, a trainer at the Van Cortlandt Park stable, described the events of her unlucky Friday the 13th. She explained that Bella spends a lot of time with her while she works, but that day the dog lagged behind while Ms. Cioti rode a horse on a park trail. “Bella, go home [to the stable], you’re not going to make it,” Ms. Cioti recalled saying to the dog.
But when she returned from her ride at around 3:30 p.m. Bella was nowhere to be found. Ms. Cioti panicked.
With the help of her friends at the stable, she canvassed the grounds. “We looked in the woods… everywhere,” she said.
But the canvass was fruitless.
Undaunted, Ms. Cioti and her co-workers, family and friends spread out over an ever-widening area to post copies of a bright day-glo flier with the dog’s cute, wrinkly face on it. She covered her car with her phone number and a plea for Bella’s safe return, posted messages online and called the city’s 311 help line.
“She’s part of the family,” Marissa Mastronardi, also a trainer at the stable, said of Bella.
The moral support and legwork of family and friends helped Ms. Cioti reach out to hundreds of people. “This dog has the biggest fan club of any dog I know,” Ms. Cioti said. “People fight to babysit her.”
Eventually, a woman came forward and said she had found the dog on June 13, but that she couldn’t keep it. Instead, she gave it to someone who promised to look for the owner.
Fortunately, the first woman kept the name and cell phone number of the second woman and before long Ms. Cioti had a fix on the dog’s location — in New Jersey.
Hoping to be reunited with her pet, Ms. Cioti traveled to the home of Cathy Leon in Elizabeth, N.J., only to be rebuffed by the dog’s new “owner.” At first, Ms. Cioti said, Ms. Leon denied having the dog. “I was hysterical crying and she looks me in the eye and said, ‘I’ll help you put up signs,’” Ms. Cioti recalled.
But her luck was finally turning.
Her poster campaign got the attention of Rescue Ink, a non-profit staffed by heavily tattooed, intimidating gentlemen.
The organization specializes in finding lost or stolen pets. “Rescue Ink is all about zero tolerance when it comes to animal abuse and neglect,” its Web site states above a picture of Mike Tattoo, a former actor with tattoos on his neck, face and scalp.
The details of exactly how the dog got to Elizabeth, N.J. are in dispute.
Ms. Cioti believes one of the women gave Bella to a homeless man who traded her for a cigarette.
Angel said he couldn’t substantiate this part of the story. “The fact is the dog was taken from the stable area by a woman in Yonkers and the dog went to New Jersey,” he said. “It passed from hand to hand. Who took it? I don’t know.”
At first, when confronted by the pet detective, the New Jersey resident insisted she was keeping Bella.
“Angel was able to convince her there would be serious repercussions to her actions,” Ms. Cioti said.
He set up a June 25 reunion at the Vannie stables with Ms. Cioti, Ms. Leon and Bella. Ms. Cioti nervously paced the parking lot at around 4 p.m. as she waited for Bella to arrive.
When Ms. Leon finally arrived in a black Lincoln Town Car Bella scurried out of a white crate into Ms. Cioti’s waiting arms. “We’re whole again, everybody. We got the missing member,” Ms. Cioti said to her gathered friends.
Ms. Leon insisted she hadn’t known whose dog Bella was, but she was happy to return her.
For his pet detective efforts Angel took no money, but there was talk of a celebratory barbecue at the stable. “The most important thing is for the dog to go back to the owner, see her happy, see the dog happy,” he said.
Angel said Rescue Ink can be particularly helpful because police departments often view lost animals the way they view lost property — a low priority. Angel sees tracking down lost animals as a way of giving back. “We do it out of the kindness of our heart,” he said.