A class project by a group of Fort Hays State University students aims to help people and their lost pets — and other important items — reunite with privacy and simplicity in mind.

FHSU seniors Spencer Romeiser, Waleed Alyahya and Umar Farooq have created Trace and Return, an online system of registering pets as well as items such as cell phones, laptops, key rings or luggage while keeping their phone numbers or email address private.

Users simply attach a numbered Trace and Return plastic tag or sticker to the item and register it on www.tracereturn.com.

The tags include instructions to enter the code number on the website and it will return with information to contact the owner. The owner of the item can choose when registering if the information is visible on the website or kept private.

The idea for the private, but simple, method originated after Farooq’s uncle lost luggage that contained valuables.

“When we tried to find it, we literally had to go to four or five places,” he said.

The bag never was found, and the search inspired Farooq to think of an easy way for people to find their belongings. He joined with Alyahya and Romeiser on the project for their FHSU capstone class in Informatics.

In their research, they met with the manager of Hays Regional Airport, who mentioned an important point — “the idea of privacy, and people don’t want their (phone) numbers to be out,” Alyahya said.

“So this has no personal information on the tag. It’s contained in our website,” Romeiser said.

“If your information is public, someone can search your info by the tag ID. But if you don’t want it public you can make it private. You’ll get a notification inside the email,” Farooq said.

Initially, the project was directed toward items such as laptops or phones.

“Then we thought, ‘Why not have it for pets as well?’ We actually found people loved it more,” Alyahya said.

An estimated 8 million dogs and cats are lost each year, Alyaha said.

“A lot of them end up dying because they couldn’t find an adopter or their owner. We want to take the pain out of all this and make it cheap, easy and convenient,” he said.

The students eventually met with Lisa VanHorn, Hays, who is licensed to foster dogs and cats and administers the Facebook page Hays and Surrounding Areas Pets Lost and Found. She is also completing an English degree at FHSU.

She said Trace and Return is an answer to a problem she and some volunteers had been working on for several months, namely what to do when animals are lost or found when no animal control officer is on duty.

The Hays Police Department has two animal control officers who work 11- or 12-hour shifts. When they are not on duty, patrol officers respond to emergency animal calls, but it does leave gaps in coverage for non-emergency animal calls.

“There wasn’t much we could do with them other than we were allowed to have several people around town be able to keep them overnight and call animal control in the morning,” VanHorn said.

“That worked for awhile but then we started to be animal control, and that’s not what we wanted to do,” she said.

“This was the perfect solution to our problem,” she said of Trace and Return.

Trace and Return is offered free of charge, an advantage over microchipping pets, the students said. Micochips can cost about $50 per pet.

HPD Animal Control Officer Nikki Hausler agreed the tags could be an advantage over microchips

“With microchips, we have to get the animal to a vet clinic or someone with a scanning wand to see if they have a chip,” she said.

If the animal does have a chip, it doesn’t always lead to a reunion.

“Nine times out of 10, what I find is people get the chips implanted but they don’t do the next step, getting it registered under their name,” she said.

Veterinarians who implant the chips don’t necessarily keep records of who purchases the chips, she said.

Hausler and VanHorn stress the Trace and Return tags do not take the place of city registration and rabies tags, which can also help identifying a lost animal’s owner. Hausler said Ellis County Law Enforcement Center dispatchers have access to city tag information around the clock.

The students have plans to keep the site going even after they graduate. VanHorn is writing grant applications as a part of a class, and Alyahya, Farooq and Romeiser have plans to launch a crowd-funding campaign and form a company to grow Trace and Return beyond Hays. Donations can also be made through the website.