Cost of search: $1,000 (so far). Hours spent: countless. Finding Pushinka: priceless.
CLEARWATER - There is a cat on the kitchen table. Eighteen pounds of mahogany brown, snow white and jet black fur stretched across two-thirds of the tabletop in a luxuriant snooze. His name is Jeremiah.
On the arm of a recliner, Mikki, the color of cafe au lait, gazes from a single topaz eye. He was a stud cat, a progenitor of the breed Exotic. Cancer took his other eye. Age took his job.
There are brothers and sisters and cousins in every room of the small ranch house in Clearwater, resting on the bed coverlet, parked on the counter, sitting primly on the floor, disinterested in a five-story cat treehouse but sauntering over to find out what another finds interesting, a plush tail held aloft like a feathery plume.
But Barbara Keller, the owner who indulges each and every one of her children with formulated food and studio portraits and fuzzy balls tossed for play, wants one cat.
The cat that is not here.
Have you seen this cat? asks the ad in the "lost" section of the classifieds. Pushinka, Russian for fluff, gazes regally from a photo, his kitten face unperturbed.
Keller, 60, has spent nearly $1,000 on the ad, appearing daily for five months, and on pet finder services and five-dozen trips to three counties to chase countless phone calls from people who say they've seen her cat. On New Year's Eve, after a phone tip, she drove to Sweetwater's Restaurant and prowled around the dumpster, finding no cat and only the realization she was alone in a grungy parking lot in the dead of night.
"He's my baby," Keller explains.
Nine-month-old Pushinka disappeared Nov. 20. Keller believes a passerby spotted the copper-colored kitten in the front window, watching for Keller to come home from her night shift as a transport nurse, and walked in through a front door left unlocked by Keller's father to carry Pushinka away.
Reward for information, reads the ad. Owner heart broken.
Keller walked the streets, talking to neighbors. She checked animal shelters. She sat on her front stoop all night, Pushinka's cat carrier beside her. She beat a fork against a dish, the signal for mealtime. She called his name again and again.
"The only thing that came that night was a raccoon at 4 o'clock in the morning," she says.
"I'm convinced someone took him."
She copied 50 fliers with a color photo.
She put Pushinka's picture in a 2004 cat calendar, in the corner of a larger photo of Bijou, the featured cat for January. "Please help us find my brother," reads the caption.
People call her about the newspaper ad. They say a neighbor has a cat that looks like hers. They tell her the workers at a Rally station are feeding a stray that could be hers. She has driven to Seminole and Hudson and New Port Richey and Tampa, praying that this time, this cat, would be hers.
A pet detective offered his services but wouldn't take her money when told her pet had been missing more than three months.
Another caller gave her the name of a pet psychic.
An 85-year-old woman phoned to say she is looking for Pushinka and she is praying for Keller and she has seven cats, so she understands.
"I've had nasty calls, too. One man said, "He's dead. I ran him over. I'll bring him to you if you tell me where you live.' "
People call and want to give her another cat.
"I want my boy back," she says.
"He was beautiful. He is fabulous. I'd take him to the cat shows and exhibitors would come over to look at him. He got Best Kitten at the first show out."
Keller breeds Exotics, which resemble Persians but with short hair, and Maine Coons, whose earthy coloring and substantial size resemble a lynx. She began showing cats in 1990, after a stray wandered into her yard. "I kept telling her to go home. She said, "I am.' " She named her Magie.
Show ribbons hang like fringe above the doorway to the sunroom, where an easy chair is piled with a dozen different bags of cat food. Five square dishes of kibble are lined up on a towel by the coffee table, five more bowls crowded onto a nearby tray.
Maribella, an Exotic shorthair, is sequestered in a cat carrier, sending pheromone calls for love. Bijou and Purrcilla Presley are together in an adjacent suite, for a sanctioned tryst.
There are more than a dozen cats - Keller will not say precisely how many - at her father's house and another dozen or so at Keller's own house in Dunedin. A Maine Coon kitten can sell for more than $500 as a pet, $1,000 to a breeder, she says.
How many has she sold?
"How can you let these kids go?"
There is 7-month-old Victor McPurr and 15-year-old Mikki.
There are a half-dozen expectant and new mothers and rambunctious children, kept by a cage door in a bedroom turned natal ward.
Upholstery is pilled from clawing and shiny with shed hair.
Each child gets his or her due, a scratch under the chin, a quick brushing, upon request.
But none of them is her "sweet, sweet, boy" Pushinka.
Pushinka, who would come running when he heard the buzz of the "panic mouse": a pompom on a wire propelled in circles around a plastic mouse base.
Pushinka, who would put his nose to the television screen when animal shows aired on public TV.
Pushinka, who liked the Aflac duck.
If the person who took him wanted to breed the Exotic longhair, they need his paperwork.
If they took him because he's beautiful, Keller hopes he's cared for.
There is a sign in the front yard with the photo of Pushinka posing, wrapped in plastic so the lettering will not run. Please bring home. No questions.
"I drive up and down the street and look in windows," says Keller. "Every time I turn onto my street I say, "Pushinka, please be there.' "