SHANGHAI — On a freezing December night, three men rush into a downtown residential complex carrying a ladder, flashlights, and backpacks loaded with high-tech detection equipment.
The black-clad figures are here to meet their latest client, who called the team in distress just hours before. The woman, a Shanghai native in her 20s, says her loved one has been missing for days and she doesn’t know what to do.
Sun Jinrong, the lead detective, quickly establishes the target’s details: white, less than half a meter tall, around 4 kilograms in weight. Then, he begins sweeping the woman’s home for clues.
Sixth Tone spent an evening tailing lost pets with Shanghai-based pet detective, Sun Jinrong. By Daniel Holmes and Zhou Zhen/Sixth Tone
Within minutes, Sun spots a half-open window — the most likely escape route, he deduces. He heads to the complex’s security room to view surveillance footage of the building.
Just as he suspected, the recording shows a white cat dropping down from the window. Moments later, a couple from the same building carries it away.
Sun finds out which apartment belongs to the couple and heads straight there. Taking out his cat-hair detector, he bangs on the door. The suspects are caught red-handed.
The client repeatedly thanks Sun as he hands over her rescued pet and transfers 2,000 yuan ($285) to his bank account. The whole job has taken about 30 minutes.
For Sun, it’s all in a night’s work. Since 2013, the man who styles himself as China’s first pet detective has helped more than 1,000 pet owners track down missing cats and dogs.
Sun’s business has boomed in recent years as China has emerged as a nation of animal lovers. Nearly 100 million Chinese households now have a pet — up 44% since 2014 — and the country’s pet market grew over 18% year-over-year to reach 200 billion yuan last year.
In a 2019 survey, nearly 60% of Chinese pet owners said they viewed their pets as their children, and they’re increasingly willing to spend large sums to pamper their little four-legged emperors. High-end pet accessories, lavish pet funerals, and even pet cloning are all growing in popularity.
From his base in suburban Shanghai, where he lives in a rented house with his crew of 10 assistants, Sun now serves around 30 clients per month in cities across China. His fee for a Shanghai-based job starts from 800 yuan, while Beijing pet owners pay at least 8,500 yuan — including airfare and accommodation.
His fame has spread through word-of-mouth and a clever social media game. Each time he rescues an animal, Sun asks the owner to record a short video for his TikTok and Weibo social media channels. He now has 150,000 and 76,000 followers on the platforms, respectively.
The son of an air force mechanic, Sun grew up on a Chinese military base — an experience that taught him rigor and discipline, he says. In person, he exudes a poker-faced professionalism that helps him calm down often-emotional clients.
“Some cry on the phone and are still crying when they see me,” Sun tells Sixth Tone. “They regard me as their savior and place all their hopes on me.”
The 38-year-old moved to Shanghai with his parents from the neighboring Anhui province over a decade ago. He started his career working in a printing factory, volunteering at a pet fostering agency in his spare time.
At the agency, Sun’s role was to rescue strays and then arrange for them to be adopted. Occasionally, newly adopted cats and dogs would go missing, and Sun would help the owners search for them. He soon found he had a knack for it.
“It’s like they (the animals) are playing hide-and-seek with me,” says Sun. “I have to think about how to win the game.”
Owners began approaching Sun directly, offering to pay him to find their lost pets. In 2013, he decided to quit his factory job and become a full-time pet detective.
Success didn’t come overnight, however. Pets were still relatively rare in many parts of China at the time, and owners didn’t cherish their animals in quite the same way. “People hadn’t yet reached the point of being willing to pay to recover their lost pets,” says Sun.
For a long time, Sun couldn’t support himself financially and had to eat at his parents’ house to save money. His family, with their military background, struggled to accept his choice of profession. “They’re of a generation that doesn’t think anything to do with pets and animals is a real job,” says Sun.
In the early days, Sun had a hard time convincing potential clients to trust him. Many accused him of being a fraud, he says. But as he cracked more and more cases, he gradually built up a reputation.
“When the owners are reunited with their pets, they thank me with tears, laughter, and inarticulate exclamations,” says Sun. “Some have even gotten down on their knees.”
The detective takes his career extremely seriously. Over the years, he’s witnessed how the loss of a pet can deeply affect people’s lives: Clients have quit their jobs to search for missing dogs, while couples have started fighting and eventually divorced, he says.
He invests heavily in equipment that might be useful during a case. His minivan is stuffed with cat traps, night vision devices, monitors, and alarms with wireless transmission functions. The most expensive gadget — a life detector used by disaster rescue teams to locate survivors — cost over 20,000 yuan.
The former factory worker is also a devoted autodidact. He spent two years learning to imitate the calls of young birds to lure out hidden cats. When he’s not on duty, he reads books on psychology and zoology.
“Since I’m a pet detective, I have to learn more about animal behavior and the mentality of pet owners,” says Sun.
For Sun, the key to a pet detective’s success is learning the art of deduction. Whenever he arrives at a client’s home, his first move is to get a description of the animal, including its age, gender, breed, and whether it’s been neutered. “If it’s a senior husky, we know it won’t have run too far away,” he says.
Pet owners often fail to find their pets because they’re blinded by emotion, according to Sun.
“They say, ‘my baby is so smart; he’d never fall into a river or trap,’ or, ‘there’s no way my timid dog would cross the road by himself,’” says Sun. “It limits their search.”
When asked about his success rate, Sun says it depends on the specifics of each case. “If the dog is lost in a region where people have the tradition of eating dog meat, the chances of finding it are close to zero,” he says.
He’s learned to manage his clients’ expectations and stress that the outcome is always uncertain. “For the pet owners, it makes no difference if the odds of success are 40% or 80%,” he says. “To them, the pet is either found or it isn’t.”
The joy of success has faded over the years as it’s become routine, says Sun. But the memories of failed cases are still “painful.” If he isn’t able to locate a client’s pet, Sun will normally never speak with them again.
“We tend to let the owner heal by themselves, rather than bring back unpleasant memories,” says Sun. “We can’t and dare not offer any follow-up service, unlike other industries.”
Sometimes, however, cases resolve themselves naturally. The same December night that found Sun retrieving the white cat, the team failed to locate the feline of a Taiwanese resident nearby, despite looking for three hours.
Sun had tried everything to lure out the animal — which he sensed was hiding somewhere near the man’s apartment building — setting up a cage full of dried squid with two cameras trained on it. The cat, however, failed to appear, and the team finally gave up at 2 a.m.
Two days later, the man informed Sun he’d found the cat wandering around just outside the building’s entrance.
“A happy ending,” says Sun. “I hope my industry will disappear one day, because it’ll mean no more pets will be lost.”
Contributions: Zhou Zhen; editor: Dominic Morgan.
This article was published on Sixth Tone.