A little girl's anguish after her parakeet flew away resulted decades later in her founding what is now a nationwide nonprofit organization that works to reunite people with their lost pets.

When northwest Columbus resident Maresa Fanelli, then 54, sat down with a ThisWeek reporter in May 1998 for an interview about her fledgling Pet FBI, which is a shortened version of Lost Pets Found by Internet, she was pleased that 30 instances of people seeking missing cats and dogs had been filed, she said.

These days, that happens in the blink of an eye.

"We've come a long way, baby," said Fanelli, now 74 and director emeritus of Pet FBI. "It just took on a life of its own, and took over my life, that's for sure."

Fanelli, whose pet bird took wing when she was 10 years old and living in her native Passaic, New Jersey, originally focused on helping Columbus residents reunite with errant animals after a feral cat she and her husband, Robert, were caring for vanished.

"It was a way of helping animals without doing the heartbreaking hands-on work, but you still get your heart broken from some of the stories," Fanelli said. "Some of them haunt you."

Pet FBI quickly spread to include Franklin County and then all of Ohio.

The organization's lost-pet database at petfbi.org went national in 2014, a move greatly aided by a grant from Google that provided $10,000 a month in free advertising on the search-engine giant, Fanelli said. That later was supplanted by an even more lucrative $40,000 monthly ad budget with funding under Google's Grantspro program.

"We have to keep up a certain click-through rate, and have a volunteer dedicated to managing the very complex procedures in devising keywords and creating ads," Fanelli said. "We are also not allowed to accept advertising, an important source of income for most websites. That means we still need public support even though Pet FBI is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with no paid employees."

Leslie Poole of Hilliard has been executive director since May 2017.

"It just seemed like a really good fit," said Poole, whose son was a volunteer. "It was running smoothly. It's not like I stepped into a troubled organization.

"We did make some changes to the database, actually rolled out a new database to make it more user-friendly. We're currently looking at the website to see if we can make some upgrades."

Powell resident Janet Cooper is chairwoman of Pet FBI's board of directors, the direct result of one of the volunteers taking a personal interest when her indoor cat ran away for three days four years ago.

"She stopped by and walked the neighborhood with me and just took a personal approach that I thought was absolutely unparalleled," Cooper said. "As a result, I contributed to Pet FBI in a show of gratitude. Anything I could do to help was because I realized firsthand what a valuable service this was."

Char Reidinger, a pet sitter who lives in northwest Columbus, got to know Fanelli in 2004, and two years later took it upon herself to create a Pet FBI Facebook page, now one of the primary ways in which people communicate about lost animals.

"I only did it just to get the word out about Pet FBI," Reidinger said. "I never thought it would take off on its own."

The page has more than 63,000 followers and more than 64,000 "likes."

"I still pinch myself," Reidinger said. "I kind of was lost in terms of where to volunteer and I tried different things, but with my schedule I can't commit to blocks of time; I never know when I'm going to have to work, so this was perfect for me.

"To have a business that I love and a volunteer gig that I love equally, it's just a blessing."

"Some of the reunions, it can be months where the pet has been missing," Poole said. "The ones that make us really excited are the ones that are quick. I've had it happen where they are minutes apart. We have that happen routinely."

More than 4,500 animals and people were reunited in 2017, according to the organization.

"I get goose bumps on a daily basis," Reidinger said. "Each week I shed lots of tears of happiness."

"I love what I do," Poole said. "It's one of those things where you feel good at the end of the day that you've helped someone, you've gotten a pet back to their family."

For more information, go to petfbi.org.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1