Ellie Shay never ceases to be amazed at the things that show up in the Salt Lake post office lost and found department.

Through the years, Shay, a claims and inquiries clerk at 1760 W. 21st South, has had bank bags containing as much as $300,000 in cash come into her office."I've had checks for $50,000, all denominations of bills and pounds of coins."

She has also had to scurry from loose bees, a room full of crickets and even a wild lizard.

"Most of the things turned into my office are so lost that they never will be found by their owners. These include items that were improperly mailed or addressed or which have fallen out of envelopes, bags, boxes and cans and have no addresses attached to them.

"Eventually, lost items worth $5 or more are sent to the Dead Parcel Department in San Francisco, Calif., where they are sold. Items worth less than that are generally thrown away or given away to charity," she said.

By the end of the month, when she cleans house, her office shelves are usually stacked with such things as tires, photographs, coins, candy, camera film, keys, video cassettes, dolls, shoes, clothing of all kinds, radios, television sets, books, tools and many items difficult to identify - such as a set of 3-foot-tall metal rings whose use remains a mystery.

Shay said the Salt Palace bank deposit bag filled with money was deposited in a post office box about three or four years ago by mistake. "We figured out right away where the money had come from and we returned it promptly.

"We were able to round up most of the loose bees and get rid of them, but the crickets are a different story. They came from a poorly packaged container and when the whole mess was brought to our office we thought the crickets were dead. At least they weren't moving, so we put them on a storage shelf for awhile, as we do all lost items, to see if anybody would claim them.

"The crickets must have only been dormant or sleeping since once inside our warm office they came to life. When I came to work the next day the whole office was alive with them. We had a terrible job getting rid of them. We found crickets for days."

One of the strangest items to be lost and not found was a complete adult size bear suit, including the bear's head. "I don't like to say so, but we even get lost blood samples and urine samples in here. Ugh. Gimme a break!"

She said people who mail diamond rings, coins or other metal items in a paper envelope are asking for trouble. "The Post Office uses automated sorting equipment and while most thick or bulging letters are weeded out of the system before they go into the automated equipment, letters with rings or coins sometimes get into the machinery and rings are crushed, stones or entire rings lost and our machinery damaged."

She said rings and other valuables should be properly packaged in boxes or specially padded mailing envelopes. All packages should be correctly addressed and contain a return address. "You would be surprised how many packages are mailed without any address at all."

If there is any reason to believe an item might fall out of a package, the item should be marked or tagged with an address, Shay said.

Sometimes items that have not been mailed show up in the Post Office lost and found department, Shay said.

"People often find wallets or keys or identification badges on the street or in a store or movie and they put them in a post office box, figuring, I guess, that the post office knows everything.

"If a key isn't marked we are stumped, unless somebody comes in and claims it. We try to find the owners of driver's licenses and other identification, but if they have moved and not left a forwarding address we are at a loss."

She likes her job, she said, but added that she is usually up to her neck in paperwork - and lost items. "Sometimes I feel like Sam Spade or Ellery Queen."