When their cat Nigella went missing in July 2017, Sean Barrette, Lara Newell-Barrette and their kids Evan, 14, and Marley, 11, made an extraordinary effort to find her.
They kept trying, even when many families may have given up hope. Perhaps through a combination of that persistence and a bit of luck, Nigella is back home, 21 months after the family last saw her.
Nigella, who they estimate to be six or seven years old, came into their lives in an interesting way back in 2014.
She kept hanging around their house on Godfrey Drive in Copper Cliff, and started coming inside when she got the chance.
Sean finally brought the cat door to door, seeing if he could find anything out about her, and learned she was a stray brought home by a neighbour's daughter from a native reserve, and they were trying to find her a home.
“She was the perfect cat, basically,” Sean said — affectionate, well groomed, and very regal.
While Nigella loved hanging out with the family indoors, she was also an outdoor cat, although she'd always stay close, and would come running when they shook her treat bag.
So it was odd when she was let out after the family got home from camp, and she didn't return.
The family plastered Copper Cliff with fliers about the missing cat, and posted her information on animal-related social media sites locally and even Ontario-wide.
They checked out numerous tips of cats people thought may have been Nigella as close as a nearby laneway in Copper Cliff to as far away as Espanola and Manitoulin Island. But none were Nigella.
Sean said he walked up and down Municipal Road 55 in between Copper Cliff and Lorne Street for months after receiving a tip about a cat resembling Nigella — that now makes sense given where Nigella was found.
“On Thursday, I was upstairs working in my office,” Lara said.
“I have a picture of (Nigella) on my wall there. I was looking at the picture, and it just crossed my mind 'I wonder if she's still out there.' It's been so long, and you don't want to have your hopes up, so I just kind of brushed it aside.
“Then Friday morning I woke up to a Facebook message saying somebody had trapped this cat, and this looks an awful lot like Nigella.”
A woman named Debbie Willmott had trapped a cat on Tuddenham Street in Gatchell — several kilometres down Municipal Road 55/Lorne Street from Copper Cliff — and keen-eyed Facebook users identified the feline as possibly being Nigella.
Willmott regularly traps cats and either reunites them with their owners or brings them to the city pound.
While hard to tell from a photo, Sean and Lara said the image bore the closest resemblance to their cat of any they'd seen yet, so Sean went to see the cat Friday morning.
“The funny thing is, after 21 months, you're not sure anymore if you're necessarily going to recognize them right away,” Sean said.
“It's hard, how different they might look. She's very matted, she's lost weight. But the recognition was there right away. Every other cat that I had ever gone to see, I know like that — not her!”
Not only was the family sure it was Nigella, despite her slightly worse-for-wear appearance, the cat herself recognized Sean, Lara and the kids, as well as other extended family members.
“Oh my gosh, I was crying, I was so happy,” said Marley. Evan said when he saw her, it was like she'd never left.
One thing Nigella isn't so impressed about is the family has adopted two more cats during her extended absence — Jack and Lebowski, both males.
Always the queen, the cat has effortlessly resumed her reign over the household, maintaining an aloof attitude towards the two other cats.
“Now I figure she's a warrior princess,” Sean said. “She's still regal, but she's badass.”
The family booked a veterinarian's appointment for Nigella for Monday morning, but say she actually seems to be in reasonably good health.
They wonder if she'd found a place where she was fed with other cats in the Gatchell area. Nigella is also good at hunting her own food.
While they've always heard about cats that have returned to their families years later, Lara said she's “gobsmacked” Nigella is back. “Miracle cat!” chimes in Marley.
“I wish she could tell us what had gone on over the course of 21 months,” said Sean.