If a Dog Goes Missing in Portland, Kimber Hysell Will Do Whatever It Takes to Find It—and She Asks for Nothing in Return

There’s a reason Waggin’ Tails has found 224 dogs since the nonprofit began operating in 2019.

It had been five days since Bailey skittered out of her home through a door that wasn't fully closed, and Kimber Hysell was hoping for a sighting.

Hysell isn't the dog's owner. But as director of Waggin' Tails Search & Rescue, she's nearly as committed to bringing the 3-year-old Labrador-pit bull mix home. For the first 24 hours, there was no sign of her. But once Hysell began helping Bailey's family hang "missing" posters on every telephone and traffic signal pole in the area, calls started to pour in.

First, someone spotted her running toward Adventist Health in the Hazelwood neighborhood. Then the pursuit advanced to Mall 205 after another person saw the dark brown dog with a white chest stripe behind the shopping center. After another full day with no reports, a flurry of tips tracked Bailey east to Grant Butte in Gresham.

Hysell's mission: Trace this ever-shifting route, catch the dog and reunite Bailey with her people. But until that happens, she's also a primary source of emotional support.

"Part of what I do is, I'm the cheerleader," says Hysell. "That's the big one: Keep them from having a meltdown. And I get it. These are their children."

There's a reason Waggin' Tails has found 224 dogs since the nonprofit began operating in 2019—a tally that includes Bailey, who went home just last week. Hysell, an energetic 57-year-old with a lean frame and long blond hair she often keeps half pulled back, has become a crucial resource for pet parents living through one of their worst nightmares: a collar that slides off, a gate that doesn't latch, a leash that gets dropped. Once that dog bolts, panic sets in, and it can be difficult to figure out what to do next.

That's when those in the know contact Hysell. She will walk owners through a step-by-step rescue process that includes everything from a list of neighborhood regulars who should receive fliers with a detailed description of the canine (the mail carrier, the UPS driver, the garbage collector) to the format of the posters. Then, she'll bust out the big guns: thermal scanners and camouflage Spypoint scouting tools that make it look as if she's hunting a fugitive from the law rather than a lost pet.

"I emailed her on a Saturday at 8 pm," says Daniel Lewkow, who reached out to Hysell last November when his 2-year-old German shepherd mix got spooked by a car alarm on a walk and took off, just hours after bringing him home from the Humane Society. "I woke up the next morning to 17 different text messages from Kimber about how to get this dog back, and it was like all hands on deck after that. She would have gone to the ends of the earth to find this dog. And she doesn't charge people. She does it out of the goodness of her heart. Which, in 2020, was a pretty affirming experience."

Waggin' Tails—which operates entirely on donations—started as an animal care service in 2009. While walking clients' pets, Hysell would notice dogs on the loose that were clearly missing their owners.

"We call them runners," she says, adding that you never want to chase them—that will only push a dog farther from where it went missing. "We'd go and see if we could sit and get the dog. And if not, it's like, 'What do we do? What else is there?'"

As it turns out, not a lot. Sure, there are lost-and-found forums online, Facebook groups, and apps like PawBoost, which is about as close as you can get to blasting an Amber Alert for your fur baby. But pet parents usually end up monitoring and updating these posts themselves, hoping the right people are in the right place at the right time for a sighting—that is, if you can get them to stop scrolling long enough to read the announcement. The whole prospect of a happy reunion can begin to feel downright hopeless.

Which is why Hysell's optimism may come as a surprise at first to anyone who automatically assumes the worst-case scenario for their dog. But her assuredness doubles as a motivator—a way to verbally shake sense into a frazzled owner, so they can focus and follow her advice.

"It's like, 'My baby, she's going to die,'" Hysell says of many clients' initial reaction. "No. I need you to be strong for your dog. Your dog knows what they're doing. They're resourceful. It's our job to get them home, so here's what we're going to do."

And if that doesn't buoy the spirit of an owner in despair, Hysell's arsenal of rescue equipment would reassure anybody that this dog tracker knows how to get the job done. When Hysell and her daughter first spun off Waggin' Tails into a search-and-rescue nonprofit three years ago, though, they didn't have all that high-tech equipment at their disposal. They started small, with a couple of trip-plate traps they would bait with roasted chicken and liquid smoke-spiked broth to create the aroma of a barbecue.

"It's the good stuff," she says of the food, "because we need the tummy to talk louder than the fear in the brain."

Once the traps were in place, they would wait. For Hysell, that meant many long nights sleeping in her Mazda hatchback with an electric blanket plugged into the car to stay warm. She would set an alarm to wake every two hours to see whether the dog she was after had triggered the door.

"And you don't want another animal," says Hysell. "I've gotten a cat, I've gotten raccoons, I've gotten skunks."

These days, there are fewer campouts since she's acquired a network of cameras, including four for live feeds that send notifications of activity directly to her phone. But Hysell still logs thousands of hours in parks, woods and even industrial parks—any place, really, where lost dogs can find crevices and coverings to hunker down. She's put tens of thousands of miles on her car, tracking wandering pups in the Portland metro area, but she has also traveled as far as Seaside, Estacada and Wilsonville to hunt down strays.

A Lhasa named Jester once sent her on a pursuit that spanned six cities. It took 18 days and a slew of messages through the neighborhood bulletin platform Nextdoor, but Hysell discovered the dog was frequenting a yard nearly 10 miles away from where he escaped through a screen door in King City. So, that's where she placed one of her trapping crates. After circling it for an hour, Jester finally took the bait.

Hysell can tell you the names, breeds and search details of nearly every single missing dog she's helped find. And while there are 224 success stories, she never forgets about those that were not recovered.

"It's hard. I do have dogs I haven't found. I've let them down is how I feel," Hysell says, her eyes welling with tears. "I have five that we never found that we started [the search] with on day one. There's 17 that I got involved with that we haven't found. And that number haunts me."

That is why she'll never give up on a dog unless an owner tells her to stop looking. That's led to searches that lasted weeks, sometimes months. But those impossible-sounding reunions do happen.

Take Smudge. Hysell got a tip that a stray shih tzu mix had settled into a greenspace between a heavy equipment rental company and a security alarm installer just off of I-5 in Tigard. She nicknamed the dog Smudge for its squished-in nose and, depending on the day, would spend six to 14 hours trying to lure the pup with a food trail while taking a seat on the grass nearby. The hope was he would get comfortable enough with the routine for her to approach. But after nearly five months without much progress, she was at a loss.

"I sat in there and cried," Hysell says. "And I said, 'Smudgie, I don't know how much more Auntie can do this. I need some help, buddy.'"

And as if he had heard her plea, Smudge crawled out from under a fence moments later. It was a sign: Hysell knew she would be able to catch the dog, telling herself, "Tomorrow's the day." She returned with a snare and her daughter, who brought a temporary barrier to block the hole to keep him in the field. Finally, on Day 151, Smudge was captured.

But the little dog had a few more surprises in store for Hysell. He had a microchip—she thought he might have been dumped—and had been lost a lot longer than anyone could have suspected: 411 days. That's the longest stretch a dog has been on the run that Waggin' Tails has rescued.

"I called [the family] and the lady's like, 'Is this a joke? Oh my God, he's been missing since August of 2019,'" says Hysell. "They thought he was gone."

If there is anything Hysell wants more than to help you find your dog, it's that people understand there are ways to prevent them from escaping in the first place. Most of the animals she ends up tracking are either recently adopted or being fostered. Those dogs often come from traumatic situations and are more likely to run away while getting acclimated to their new environment, so Hysell created a tip sheet on how to keep them safe and secure during the first three months at home.

"You need to expect the unexpected," Hysell says. "You think your dog isn't going to slip the collar? Yeah, they are. You think you escape-proofed the yard? They're going to find a way. Take the steps to keep your baby safe. My goal is: Don't make me needed."

Update: After this article was published, WW learned that in 2008, Kimber Hysell pleaded guilty to embezzling $246,000 from a former employer. At the time of her conviction, Hysell was known as Kimberlei Ann Denison. (Records show she legally changed her name in 2019; Hysell says she is adopted and decided to change her name after learning about her birth parents.) She was sentenced to 19 months in prison, and records show she is still paying restitution.

Andie Baldwin, a member of the Waggin Tails Search and Rescue Board of Directors, issued the following statement to WW:

"Willamette Week has asked Waggin Tails for a statement regarding Kimber's past. Over twelve years ago Kimber paid her debt to society for her involvement in relation to embezzlement from a past employer. All board members involved with accounting were made aware of Kimber's past before signing onto the organization's accounts. Waggin Tails S&R is a registered 501c3 non-profit and per Kimber's request she does not have access to the funds donated to Waggin Tails. All of us at Waggin Tails are inspired daily by Kimber's unwavering dedication to the work of rescuing lost dogs and feel no fear or shame being associated with her and her work. It is our hope that people with criminal backgrounds who have paid their debts to society be acknowledged for the work and dedication they put into the world upon their release instead of having their worst moments played on repeat for the rest of their lives. Just as Kimber dedicates her life to giving dogs and their families second chances, we hope all readers recognize Kimber's deservingness of a second chance as well."

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