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Sixteen years ago, Jason McKenry’s 2-year-old gray tabby escaped from his Bear apartment. McKenry long ago knew he would never see Ritz again.
Then this week, he got a text. Ritz had been taken to a veterinarian and was about to be put down when someone found a microchip.
After 16 years. SIXTEEN.
What has Ritz been up to all these years? How did he survive?
Little is known of his whereabouts after that day in Bear. Though McKenry did learn that Ritz had hitched a ride in a neighbor’s pickup truck after charging out of the apartment.
For the last couple of years, Ritz has been surviving thanks to the kindness of strangers near Lums Pond. It was one of those strangers who took the cat to the vet and started the chain of events that led to McKenry and Ritz being reunited.
But everything in between is a mystery.
“I wish he could talk,” McKenry said this week. “I’d love to hear his story.”
Everyone connected to the cat, from those who were feeding him to the makers of the microchip, is stunned by the story.
“Sixteen years? That’s a new record as far as I know,” said Tom Sharp, president of AKC Reunite, a national database for microchipped pets. “That’s amazing.”
Sharp said he expects shelters and veterinarians to check for microchips on animals when they are taken in or before they are adopted out.
These microchips, known as radio frequency identification, are not able to locate or trace a pet’s whereabouts because they don’t have GPS.
McKenry thought his cat had died after all these years, but still, he hoped someone would find the microchip and help explain what happened.
What little is known about Ritz is still quite a tale.
McKenry was on a business trip when his roommate opened the door to their Bear apartment and Ritz ran out on June 14, 2006.
McKenry, who had had Ritz for two years, went knocking on doors looking for him.
One of his neighbors told him that while driving down Route 1, near Route 40, a person flagged him down to tell him that a cat had jumped out of his pickup bed.
“Because of the way that he disappeared, we really didn’t have a good idea of where to start looking,” McKenry said.
McKenry posted flyers in the area and called shelters every couple of days to see if the short-hair feline had been spotted.
He also kept in touch with animal shelters for months, fearing if he didn’t, they would euthanize Ritz. That’s because he was told that many places at the time did not check for microchips.
“Almost universally, the answer I got from all the shelters and vets was that they checked for dogs,” he said, “but they really didn’t check routinely for cats.”
As the months went on, the search for Ritz tapered.
McKenry married his girlfriend, Liz, whose cat, Bailey, had been Ritz’s best buddy. The couple moved to Annapolis about 11 years ago and had two children.
Bailey and a cat McKenry got after Ritz’s disappearance have died, leaving the couple with little hope that Ritz was still around.
“We just kind of figured that if he survived the first months, surely by now he was gone,” Liz McKenry said.
A cat named Tom?
About two years ago, Emily Russell noticed a gray tabby kept coming near her home in the Hunters Run mobile home park near Lums Pond.
“He was just so sweet and innocent,” said Russell, now 20. “I named this cat Tom because he looks like a Tomcat. He’s an old man.”
Russell said she’s been feeding eight outside cats, but Tom, who would sleep under mobile homes, was the only cat that ever let her pet him.
“We would have love sessions outside,” she said. She’d also allow the cat into her home, where he interacted with her two indoor cats.
Recently, Tom showed up at her doorstep with an injured paw and back leg.
“It looked like he got hit by a car,” she said. “His front leg was very hurt. He was holding it up and he wasn’t able to walk.”
Russell and her dad took him to Lums Pond Animal Hospital to see if anything could be done for him – or if he needed to be put down.
That’s when they found out Tom had a chip.
“I started bawling my eyes out,” she said. “If I had known he had a chip, I would have taken him sooner, but he just looked like a feral cat.”
McKenry’s reaction to the text got his wife’s attention.
“What did you just say?” Liz McKenry asked her husband.
Taking his phone, she ran upstairs and called Lums Pond Animal Hospital.
“That doesn’t feel possible,” she said when hearing that Ritz had been found. “Are you sure?”
“He’s a gray tabby,” the voice on the phone assured her. “He’s right here.”
Liz McKenry sobbed for about an hour.
The couple picked up their children and drove to the animal hospital, where they were reunited with Ritz.
After Ritz was treated at the animal hospital, they took him to the Odessa-area home of Caroline Clark, Liz McKenry’s mother, who they jokingly refer to as a “certified cat lady.”
There Ritz rested most of Tuesday.
The McKenrys aren’t sure if Ritz recognizes them, but he is being friendly.
“He hasn’t balked at all about being handled,” Jason McKenry said. “It’s astonishing.”
The McKenrys returned to Annapolis on Tuesday night, leaving Ritz at Clark’s home to recover. After that, they will figure out what comes next.
“He’s obviously had a long eventful life,” Jason McKenry said. “But he’ll be comfortable for whatever time he has left.”