WANAQUE, N.J. — Jimmy the tabby is back with his human family after going missing more than 2½ years ago.
The now-15-year-old brown-striped boy was found on St. Patrick's Day about 10 miles from his home here and brought to the West Milford Animal Shelter Society. Volunteers took a photo and posted it on the shelter's lost-cat Facebook page, where the Zelitsky family found it.
"If it wasn't for the wonderful people at WMASS, we would have never had this happy reunion," Susan Zelitsky said. Because Jimmy liked sneaking into parked cars through open windows, his family thinks he accidentally hitched a ride out of town rather than walking the whole way.
On Sept. 13, 2014, the night Jimmy left, Zelitsky said her husband let him go outside. But the cat that they've had since he was 6 weeks old didn't return as usual when she called for him, Zelitsky said.
Jimmy often spent time outside in this New Jersey suburb about 25 miles northwest of New York City.
He sat on the front porch with Susan Zelitsky and her husband, Bob, and visited the neighbor across the street for treats. He would join the Zelitskys on walks with their dog.
"He would go to the front door like a dog when he had to go to the bathroom, but he would always come back and meow at the door to come in," she said.
Susan Zelitsky called for Jimmy around midnight that mid-September night, and the family still couldn't find him the next day when they searched the neighborhood. They hung missing-cat posters and reached out to police departments and shelters.
"We were devastated," she said.
In the months that followed, Susan Zelitsky never gave up the search, and sometimes she would call out for Jimmy when she walked the dog.
"Not only me, but my kids and husband, too," she said. "If I saw a cat that looked the same, I would wonder."
Jimmy was found March 17, three days after the late winter blizzard that hit the Northeast.
Shortly after he was brought to the shelter, volunteers placed pictures on their Facebook page called Real Cats at West Milford Animal Shelter. Because of Jimmy's demeanor, age, neutering and lack of front claws, they were pretty certain that he had a home, so they decided to pay to have it show up in the Facebook feed of people within a 10-mile radius with specific interests.
In short order, the post was viewed nearly 27,000 times and was shared 600 times. Five days later, Susan Zelitsky saw her long lost Jimmy.
"One of my Facebook friends had shared a post from WMASS with a picture, and I looked at it and thought how much he looked like Jimmy," she said.
Susan Zelitsky contacted the shelter, found out more information and went there the next morning with her neighbor, who had given Jimmy to the family as a kitten. She brought along a pillowcase and dog toy that Jimmy had used for years, to see if they would provoke a reaction.
"When they opened the crate door, I said, 'Jimmy is that you, bud?' and he walked over and head butted me and smooshed his nose into the dog's toy," she said. "I immediately started to sob. He started to rub up against us, and when I was rubbing his belly he nipped me, which he always did. He put his head in Dayna (Devine)'s hands and he started to purr loudly."
She compared photographs and his markings.
"I was convinced it was my boy," she said. "I called my husband and he came to the shelter. When he saw Bob, he did the same head butt."
Social media definitely helps reunite lost pets with their families, one of the shelter volunteers said. But giving a pet a microchip, which Jimmy didn't have, and keeping the information on file up to date is often more efficient because veterinarians and others with microchip readers can get contact information fairly easily and call a family directly.
Jimmy, whose reunion with his family was March 22, is home now after his 2½-year adventure — not a usual absence for a lost kitty — and doing fine. Susan Zelitsky said he was in pretty good shape considering he was out and about for so long.
"When it was OK to let him roam the house, he walked around like he owned the place," Susan Zelitsky said. Jimmy remembers the layout of the house, and he's been doing things he had done in the past, such as sleeping on his favorite dining room chair and Bob Zelitsky's chest.
While Jimmy was gone, the family adopted two kittens.
"The new kitties, who are 2, welcomed him. And everyone is one big happy family," Susan Zelitsky said.
Her daughters, who weren't around for the reunion, at first were skeptical.
"My younger daughter came home from work and he was laying on my bed, and she said, 'Who the heck is that?' " Susan Zelitsky said. "I said, 'Go close,' and he immediately rolled over for belly rubs, and she cried and cried."
Follow Jai Agnish on Twitter: @JaiAgnish