Three-legged dog’s 8-month trek tests trackers’ fortitude
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The story of three-legged Bella’s eight-month odyssey into the wilds near Haile Plantation near Gainesville is a testament to one dog’s stubborn attempts to stay alive.
And her return is testament to the just-barely-more-stubborn group of humans who latched onto her story and wouldn’t let go.
Bella, or Yella, as she was initially known, had been taken in as an abused-dog case by Alachua County Animal Services and had her front right leg amputated on April 6 because it became infected. She was pulled by the Alachua County Humane Society and on April 26 was sent home to recuperate with a foster. For reasons known only to the dog, she escaped the foster’s home within eight hours and vanished.
Using social media such as Nextdoor and Facebook’s Gainesville Pet Finder page, a loose-knit group began scouring the area near Haile Plantation where the dog had last been seen. They combed the area together and separately, calling and looking, calling and looking.
Among the volunteers were Tara Montiegel, an Exactech employee who owned a game camera and a trap from having used both to catch a stray that’s now part of her five-dog pack; and Brandi Ormerod, a University of Florida neuroscientist-turned-business owner and owner of two dogs.
They set up Montiegel’s camera and a trap from Animal Services in the woods near the place Bella had last been seen and thus began months of frustration, elation and everything in between.
Bella eagerly went into the trap, the door began to close, she quickly ducked back out of it and would thereafter not go anywhere near it. They left food outside the trap to ensure she didn’t starve. Sometimes they’d see her on their camera, but she wasn’t going in that trap.
So they built a “Missy” Trap — invented in 2013 to catch a former puppy mill dog named Missy who, like Bella, wouldn’t go into a conventional trap. Made of large panels, the trap can be triggered with hanging bait, pressure plate or an electromagnet release.
Bella nosed around it, but never went in. By then, it was Memorial Day weekend, and along came subtropical storm Alberto, bringing heavy wind and rain.
They didn’t see Bella for six weeks. They began to doubt she was alive.
“She just poofed,” Ormerod said.
But — in this dog’s tale, there’s always a “but” — one of the core group of volunteers who’d been hunting for the dog spotted a “hidden” comment from an unsavvy social media user, that reported when and where she’d recently seen a three-legged yellow Lab.
So sometime in June, they moved their cameras and their trap to a sinkhole in the Old Schoolhouse Road area of Haile near where the woman said she’d seen the dog.
A veterinarian tried for two nights to hit the dog with a tranquilizer dart. Didn’t work. The ladies organized their version of a “bum’s rush,” in which they hoped to corral Bella and force her into the trap at the base of the sinkhole. It was going perfectly until the dog surprised them by clambering her way right up the other side of the sinkhole, once again out of their grasp.
Montiegel’s husband, Jake, helped, as did volunteers Sabrina Little and Nancy O’Malley. Jeanette Adicks was key in monitoring social media for any hint at the dog’s whereabouts.
They left food. They checked the trap. They checked the cameras. Day in, day out. Early mornings, late nights, weekends and holidays.
They changed traps. They moved the food around. Either on their camera or in their trap they found everything — a female coyote, raccoons, a possum, a bobcat, a pet dog that wasn’t Bella, and a black cat that seemed to smirk at their efforts.
They saw — literally — less and less of Bella.
“We could see her getting skinnier and skinnier and skinnier,” Montiegel said.
If the dog could get to the food before the other critters, she’d eat. She would nose around the traps, but wouldn’t go in.
They worried that the dog, whose ribs were now clearly visible, wouldn’t last. Coached by the county’s Animal Services director, Ed Williams, who was now among the group dutifully checking traps and making suggestions for what to try next, they took a hard-line stance around Thanksgiving: No more food except in the trap.
On Dec. 10, she leaned in to eat and her one good leg didn’t set off the trap’s trigger plate. Empty food bowl, no dog. They were devastated.
On Dec. 11, they set the trap again, this time lubricated with so much Vaseline that if her fur so much as brushed the trap, it would close.
Around 12:10 a.m. on Dec. 12, Ormerod rousted her husband, Mike Siblik, nudging him to go with her for a late-night trap check.
They pulled into the driveway of the house for sale closest to the sinkhole and and heard three deep barks: Woof. Woof. Woof.
They waited, thinking maybe Bella was near the trap. They heard the sound of dishes clanging against metal. The woofing continued.
“I think we’ve got a dog in the trap,” Ormerod said.
After months on the run, there sat the yellow Lab, finally in their reach. Ormerod says the dog’s body language suggested a giant sigh of relief.
Siblik braced just in case Bella bit him, looped a slip leash over her head, and she licked his face.
Once they got to their Windward Meadows home, Ormerod gave Bella food and water and then put her in a spare room, where she slept like the dead.
From a low of 34.8 pounds, Bella has gained 4 pounds since her rescue, but is still shy of her previous 54-pound weight.
She’s now living with Ormerod and Siblik, getting along famously with fellow canines Mr. Wiggles and Tish, and enjoying frequent visits and lots of affection from Montiegel.
“She’s stubborn,” Montiegel said of the eight-month mission. “We’re just more stubborn.”
Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com