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Publicity campaign, trail cameras bring lost beagle home

March 10, 2018

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — Jeff Bales and his girlfriend, Cyndi Stotler, don’t know what caused their 12-year-old beagle, Angel, to wander off their property on Jan. 29. But they know what brought her home - getting out the word.

“Publicity is what brought her home,” said Bales.

Angel slipped away during the afternoon of Jan. 29 in the neighborhood near Reuwer’s Grocery off Route 729.

“As night fell, it felt like a nightmare was unfolding,” said Bales. “We searched late into the evening but with no luck. It was a crushing blow as we closed and locked our front door for the night at 10 p.m.”

The aging beagle, who was like a child to Bales and Stotler, hadn’t returned.

The couple resumed searching at 5 a.m. They painted signs to place at intersections near their home. They called and visited all of the animal shelters, rescue organizations and veterinarian’s offices in the area.

No sign of Angel.

After she’d been missing for two days, Bales and Stotler launched a massive effort to distribute flyers, stuffing them in mailboxes, posting them at local stores and asking veterinarians to tack them up in their offices.

They also created a Facebook page: ‘Find our Angel.’

On day four, a steady stream of tips began pouring in. At the height of the search, the couple sometimes received more than 200 each day. They received one tip that seemed credible: Angel had been spotted on Dunkard Church Road the day after she went missing. She may have been traveling on Old Stillhouse Road, heading south toward Route 522.

“The idea of Angel having to navigate traffic certainly scared us,” Bales said.

The couple also offered a reward for information leading the return of their beloved canine companion. The tips flooded in at a greater pace — sometimes as many as 250 per day.

“She was known as the $1,000 dog,” said Bales, who said that while there was an outpouring of support, there was also some criticism for offering the reward money. “We would have offered $5,000. It didn’t matter. That’s the point of a reward.to motivate people who normally might not be motivated.”

The community, it seems, became motivated.

“She was the community dog,” said Stotler. “Everyone was looking.”

Bales and Stotler said as they sorted through the information, they tried not to lose heart. Their hearts lifted when they spotted children just up the street, carrying dog bones, looking for Angel. As calls came in, they chased sightings throughout Rixeyville, Boston, Reva, Scrabble, Castleton, Viewtown and Leon.

Bales took time off from work from his federal law enforcement job. Stotler, who had just started a new job in Manassas, couldn’t afford to do the same.

“The tips, whether credible or not, buoyed us,” Bales said. “Sometimes, people called and they didn’t have any information, they just wanted to encourage us.”

Not far from the couple’s home, a rash of beagle sightings was reported. The wayward dog wasn’t Angel, however. He was a bell-wearing traveler named Trigger, who eventually made his way back to his owner.

“In the end, we probably received 500 tips related to Trigger,” said Bales.

Still, the tips provided a welcome distraction — even if Bales and Stotler were sure it wasn’t Angel, they’d take the calls, make the trip. Sometimes they found other wandering dogs and helped them find their way home to their owners.

“Those are the things that keep you going,” said Stotler.

To weed out false sightings or faulty clues, the pair purposely didn’t reveal Angel’s collar and nametag color. They learned that beagles are plentiful in the area shelters — on one visit alone to the Fauquier County Animal Shelter they discovered less than 12. None were Angel.

She sported an orange collar and blue nametag and they would have recognized her anywhere.

The days wore on.

Searches continued from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, with the help of family members and friends. Car trips, hikes through wooden areas and cow pastures, chatting with people along the way — anything to be doing something and spread the word that Angel was out there, somewhere.

The ordeal continued and began to take its toll. Bales not only lost his concentration, he dropped about 13 pounds. He couldn’t imagine life without the dog he rescued at 6-months-old when he lived in Baltimore.

Angel had already lost her “partner in crime,” Patches, a male beagle Bales’ neighbor found in Baltimore. He adopted both beagles and they made a great pair. Patches died last year, Bales said, and he needed to find Angel.

“It was one of the worst things any of us had ever faced, as the ‘not knowing’ aspect of it resulted in growing feelings of anger, helplessness and frustration. I avoided watching the news as I cringed whenever I heard how cold it was going to be at night.”

The couple sometimes talked about what it must be like for people who lose a child, not a dog, to endure the pain. They even began to talk about ‘how long is enough’ and when they might return to their ordinary routines.

That possibility seemed far off, as it still hadn’t really registered that Angel was gone.

Bales stuck to the mantra “Be a fountain, not a drain,” as he distanced himself from anyone sharing negative thoughts.

“If someone told me one more time about coyotes, I was going to flip out,” he said.

On Feb. 4, the couple enlisted the aid of a professional dog tracker. They searched the areas near Old Stillhouse Road and Stonehouse Mountain Road. They chased a recent tip that came in from the intersection of Whippoorwill Lane and Griffinsburg Road. The tracking team seemed to confirm that Angel may have been there, while more tips streamed in from that area.

That evening, Bales and Stotler received calls about a dog resembling Angel spotted in several areas along Monumental Mills Road, about five miles from their home as the crow flies (or beagle tromps). They weren’t sure she’d have been able to cross the Hazel River — there were only two possible crossings. Still, additional tips loaned credence to the notion Angel could have traversed the waterway.

Nine days into the search, Bales and Stotler, kept praying — praying for Angel’s safety and praying their aggressive campaign to locate her would pay off.

Two days later, “life came calling,” Bales said. He had previously arranged a side job as a deejay for an elementary school dance at Marine Corps Base Quantico. He packed up for the gig and set out, with his mind elsewhere.

Just as the event was about to start, Bales received a call from a homeowner on Laurel Hill Lane about five miles from their home — his trail camera had captured images of a beagle. The man, Dave Black, had a flier and knew to call Bales.

Bales, along with Stotler who helps with his side job, couldn’t leave the event that started at 5 p.m. They waited, impatiently, for text messages of the images that didn’t arrive. Then, Black sent them by email instead and the images slowly appeared on Bales’ phone — opening from the top and showing just trees.

An eternity seemed to pass before they got the ground, where a small dog could be seen on the trail.

“I knew we had her,” Bales said.

Stotler’s mom and daughter, Jade, raced to the site. Jade stopped at a McDonalds to purchase cheeseburgers, hoping the scent of food would provide an irresistible lure. The two saw Angel run across the road, but lost her. Finally, with the help of Black’s neighbor, Duke Niebur, they found the beagle in Neibur’s barn on the historic Laurel Hill Plantation property where she’d managed to make a “nest.”

Angel was going home.

At 10 p.m., Bales and Stotler made it back to Culpeper for the long-awaited reunion.

“What a moment that was,” Stotler said.

As much as Bales and Stotler were elated, questions persisted. Did Angel get lost because they’d only lived in Culpeper for six month and she didn’t yet know her territory? Did she suffer? Had she been cold? She’d lost about 7 to 8 pounds, but seemed healthy. She had a glob of tar stuck in her fur, possibly from inside the barn. Her orange collar had bled from the rains, dying her fur the same bright fluorescent color.

For about two weeks, the little beagle hoarded food. — hers and the food belonging to the couple’s other dogs. She used to sleep nestled under blankets, but now she seemed afraid not to be ready for anything.

Gradually, Angel started to settle down.

“She’s getting back to herself,” Stotler said.

Her owners now plan to put a GPS tracking system on her collar — just in case.

“We’re lucky. We’re just so fortunate,” said Bales.

The pair also plans to keep Angel’s Facebook page active, to help others who are looking for their pets. They also have advice for others in the same situation.

The publicity campaign, they say, worked.

They think it was a mistake to start too close to home with the flyers and posters. Each time they’d get a tip, Bales said, they were already a step behind.

“Post them further out, then make your way back toward your home,” he advised.

Other advice includes not yelling for a dog, which might spook it.

“It’s gone into fight or flight and is just trying to survive. It’s not looking for a friendly neighbor, it’s looking for a place to shelter and live,” Bales said. “Sit somewhere, maybe with food and speak calmly.”

And search when the sun goes down, he added.

Most Angel sightings occurred after sundown or early in the morning.

Bales and Stotler want to thank everyone who looked for Angel, who provided moral support, who called if they thought they saw her — and particularly the owners and staff or Reuwer’s Grocery, which turned into a community hub for information about their missing dog.

“We know how fortunate we are to have our Angel back,” Bales said. “Never give up hope!”

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