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Opinion One puppy, lost and found

Nugget. (Kathleen Parker)
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When we decided to escape the blistering 98-degree South Carolina heat and head for the North Carolina mountains, we packed up our three pups, two of whom had just turned 9 months old.

Within hours of arrival, one of them went missing.

The smallest of the three, Nugget, vanished after chasing his bigger brother, Gatsby, out of sight. Gatsby returned within 15 minutes without the little guy. We immediately began searching, calling out Nugget’s name, which, I learned later, one shouldn’t do. A runaway dog knows he’s done wrong and, fearing he’s in trouble, often might not respond. Also, a tracker named RV told me, never chase a dog but sit quietly, facing away from the pet, and wait for him to approach. Tossing treats will bring him closer.

We three — husband Woody, one of our exceedingly methodical sons, Henry, and I — began dissecting possibilities and plotting strategies. Henry said, “He’s probably on someone’s porch or in a golf cart.” All three of our small pups love cart rides more than tummy rubs. The surest way to collect them is to shift the cart into reverse gear. The annoying beeping sound must be to them what Homer’s mythical Sirens were to sailors. In seconds, they’ll materialize and leap into the cart. Nugget, once in, won’t get out — ever — unless we retrieve him.

We decided a cart was our best hope. Slowly circling the area for hours, we’d periodically stop and hit reverse, hoping Nugget might reappear. No luck. Dread began seeping into our hearts as Saturday’s sun disappeared behind thunderclouds and lightning ripped the sky. Our only consolation was that Nugget was wearing a reflective collar bearing my husband’s name and cellphone number. Also, Nugget had an implanted microchip that identifies him and provides proof of ownership.

As a deluge broke and night closed around us, thoughts unavoidably turned to the realities of mountain wildlife — bears, bobcats and coyotes. The same tracker who had guided me on how to lure him back reminded me that a small dog such as Nugget would look like dinner to any of our local predators. Thanks, RV.

It was still raining Sunday morning as we began anew. Meanwhile, dozens of people from various lost-pet websites (10 million pets are lost each year) and social media where I had posted news of Nugget offered tips and valuable information. Our chip company, an invaluable resource, issued a regional alert to hundreds of vets and shelters. I printed and distributed posters. We draped unwashed jeans and T-shirts from railings and tree limbs, hoping Nugget might pick up a scent. Nada.

As it happened, the weekend was to have been a birthday celebration for my husband. Naturally, every gift was dog-related, including an 8-by-10 framed photo of him and his three charges at home. When I walked into Walgreens to retrieve the print, I beseeched the staff to please forgive my tortured eyes and obvious distress. We celebrated the birthday Sunday night with weak smiles, as more thunder and lightning crashed around us. I couldn’t stop the constant loop in my head: My poor baby. He must be so cold. And hungry and afraid.

The darkness in these eastern mountains, especially when few people have arrived for summer to turn on lights, is black-hole-ish — impenetrable and, if you’re alone out there, terrifying. With sad hearts, we turned in that night vowing without much hope that we’d find him the next day.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the phone rang.

I could hear my husband talking in the next room and raced in to listen. Hearing the caller struggling with English, I began frantically waving my arms and whispered loudly, “I speak Spanish!” In the moment, I think he had forgotten.

As we say, Gracias a Dios.

Nugget was in the safe custody of a painting crew working at a house — you won’t believe — 400 feet away, as the crow flies. As Henry had predicted, Nugget had spent the entirety of two stormy days and nights nestled in a golf cart beneath the back porch of a nearby house we had presumed was occupied. Adequate evidence indicated he’d never left the cart. Our heroic painters, who discovered him when they arrived for work, declined a reward.

I offer this miraculous (to us) story as a cautionary tale. Take from it what you will. Every tip included is solid, but prevention is better. My advice: If you take a pet on vacation, prepare in advance a list of services and contacts you could need in an emergency. And keep your pet restrained or contained, especially in unfamiliar places. For two seconds, we thought, Oh, let’s just let them run around for a minute. For two days, we were as lost as Nugget.

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