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Yellowstone employee works to reunite visitors with lost property

By Mark Davis

Powell Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — Groovy was on a cross country trip with his family when they pulled through the gates of Yellowstone National Park. But as the door to the family van swung open, the tabby cat made a break for it.

The feisty feline’s family searched as long as they could, but even after staying in the park for a few extra days, they couldn’t find Groovy. Brokenhearted, they made their way to Seattle without their pet.

For 23 days, Groovy roamed the park. It’s unknown what he did, but there were multiple sightings, with multiple park employees hot on his tail, not wanting a feral cat to become part of the world famous park’s wildlife. It evolved into an all-hands-on-deck effort across the community in Mammoth Hot Springs.

Finally, after more than three weeks, he was captured. Tammie Wert, manager of visitor services at the park, took Groovy home for safekeeping after he was found.

“He didn’t look too bad,” Wert said. “I don’t know what he was making a living on.”

The family was notified and they drove through the night to pick up Groovy, now known to park employees as “the wonder cat.”

“It was an emotional reunion,” Wert said. “They never thought they’d see that cat again.”

Thousands of items are left behind in Yellowstone National Park each year, found in parking lots, restrooms, lodges and everywhere in between. The job of returning lost property falls in the hands of a single National Park Service employee: Sara Fleming.

“As lost items are turned in, it’s my responsibility to match them with reports we’ve received,” Fleming said.

About 3,000 items are turned in to lost and found each year. Fleming’s job is to organize them and attempt to return them to their rightful owners. Many more thousands of lost items are found in the park’s massive lodges — run by concessionaires — which Fleming also adds to her database.

Very few of the items gathered in the lost property warehouse at Mammoth Hot Springs have actually been a living, breathing creature. Most are what you would expect to find: hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses and sets of keys, camera equipment and spotting scopes, clothing, children’s toys and memorabilia most likely purchased just hours before in local shops. “Our most-often items reported lost are hats and cellphones,” Fleming said.

Fleming has had surprises. “Probably the weirdest thing we’ve ever found recently was a toupee,” she said.

No lost property report was made for the hairy discovery and it never made it back to its owner.

Other oddities last year included a prosthetic leg and a half-ton tool box that fell out of a truck. “The owner had to foot the bill to have it shipped cross country,” Fleming said.

Those hoping to have their lost items returned fill out lost property reports. The form includes a detailed description of the item, where owners think they lost it and contact information. The information can be submitted over the phone, in person at ranger stations and headquarters or online. When Fleming finds a match — which happens “more often than you would think” — the merchandise is returned. If the visitors have already left the park, she’ll box up the item for shipment.

Depending on the size of the item, visitor services may cover shipments costing very little. The rest are shipped at the owner’s expense. But many items are never reported lost and, even through investigation, thousands of items remain in the warehouse at the end of the season. At that point, Fleming starts contacting charitable organizations.

One of the most frequently lost items are prescription glasses, and it’s rare that the owners are found. Yellowstone has teamed up with the New Jersey-based nonprofit New Eyes, which provides glasses to the needy. Local organizations receive donations of clothing and toys.

While the amount of lost items in the park keeps Fleming busy, it pales in comparison to the amount of items left at lodges.

“We’ve had as many as 10,000 lost items found in a single year,” said Virginia Morris, manager of support services for the Yellowstone National Park Lodges, a part of Xanterra Travel Collection.

“It seems like many of the things left behind are medical equipment — things like walkers and C-Pap machines,” she said. “I guess it speaks to the healing properties of Yellowstone.”

Morris said about 30 percent of lost items turned in at the lodges are returned to owners. She has picked up some unusual skills in her attempts to return the property. In one case, an Argentinian visitor lost a large amount of cash. He didn’t fill out a lost property report, thinking he had been robbed. He didn’t even call the police. But Morris tracked him down, verified the amount lost and then learned how to wire funds internationally, she said.

And that isn’t the only time money has been returned to its rightful owner. “I shouldn’t be, but I’m surprised by how honest people really are,” Morris said.

Xanterra-managed lodges work with Yellowstone’s visitors services if items can’t be returned after 90 days. “We assume it’s Park Service property at that point,” Morris said.

Valuable items not able to be returned by Fleming and Morris are eventually placed up for auction at The funds raised are deposited in the NPS general fund. The merchandise includes photography equipment, cellphones, optics and jewelry.

On the auction site, prospective buyers can refine searches for specific items or locations. The site has more than just lost items from Yellowstone. Wyoming offerings on the site last week included a lot of phones, an ophthalmoscope (equipment used to allow health professionals to see inside an eye), or a former missile site launch facility in Chugwater.

As of last week, there were actually two missile launch sites for sale in Wyoming with current bids under $5,300 — missiles not included. Or you could buy a lighthouse in Michigan or a Yamaha outboard motor in Florida. A Blackhawk helicopter, props not included, has a starting bid of $250,000. Once on the site, you can easily get lost in the sea of sale items

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