Sundance (aka Hoover or Old Yeller)


Sundance: Abandoned (but not forgotten.)   Heather Hines

It had been a long Thursday and I was exhausted from a day filled with the responsibilities of an animal caretaker. As I was beginning to fade away into the bliss of sleep, the phone rang. Sharyl was calling. I didn’t know her very well, but I was aware she had done some independent rescue and placement of unwanted dogs. “Heather, that dog is still out there in the cold and the rain.” She said tearfully. I knew exactly who she was referring to because the story of the dog had been all over the local news. “After all that publicity, no one has helped that poor dog!” Actually, I was as surprised as she was. The dog, a Golden Retriever mix, had apparently been abandoned a few weeks prior in an upscale, residential suburb of SE Portland. The neighborhood was surrounded by wooded area and there was a creek running between the homes. Sharyl pleaded with me, “I know you can get that dog Heather, you’ve done it before. I know you can help him.”

Because of the rainy winter weather, the ravine the creek ran through was muddy and there was nowhere for the dog to escape the rain. The concerned neighbors had watched the poor dog run scared up and down the ravine between their homes, too afraid to accept help. At least one family was leaving food out for the dog. A few neighbors had called animal control and our local Humane Society, but evidently they had been unsuccessful and the dog was still out there. Finally, one of the neighbors became frustrated with the dog’s dilemma and decided to write a letter to the editor of the Oregonian newspaper. He addressed his letter to “the coward who had abandoned his dog” in their neighborhood, and spoke of the dog’s confusion while he or she waited for the owner to return. He made reference to the confused look in the dog’s eyes each time a van would come around the corner and drive by without stopping. He talked about how pathetic it was to watch the dog shivering in the cold, day after day. The letter had been printed in the newspaper on Wednesday.

By later that day, the letter had been read on the air by a local radio station and one of the TV News Channels was following the story. People were outraged that someone had left this poor dog out there to freeze. The Oregon Humane Society had sent someone out but they had been unable to locate the dog. Multnomah County Animal Services had sent a team that included both genders of officers in case the woman would be more successful in luring the dog, and they had seen the dog running, but it would not allow either one of them to approach. The county animal control officers left a trap chained to the deck of the home of the family who was feeding the dog.

Two days later the dog was still out there, apparently either too smart or too frightened to enter the trap. I agreed to meet Sharyl at the site the morning after her desperate call, to see if we could help. We agreed she would cook some good smelling garlic chicken and bring some tennis balls. On Friday morning I called animal control and spoke to the shelter director, Mike. He told me they had been trying to trap the dog and that they had officers on the way out there again that morning. I suggested that perhaps the dog would be less frightened of someone who was not wearing a uniform. Mike seemed hesitant for a moment, but agreed to have their officer call me. Officer Chuck called a few minutes later from his cell phone. He told me they were almost at the location. He said they were considering shooting the dog with a tranquilizing dart gun. I explained my interest in helping the dog and that I felt the dog might be less frightened of me because of the uniform. We agreed together, that if they were unsuccessful in getting the dog, they would call me when they were leaving the location. An hour later, Chuck called. He told me they could see the dog, but it was not going to be easy to catch. They were unable to get close enough to dart it. They were leaving the location for the day.

I called Sharyl and we agreed to meet at the bottom of the ravine. I had decided to bring my little mixed breed dog, Annie. Annie had such a mild personality that even frightened dogs were generally unafraid of her. During many rescues involving timid or frightened dogs I had found they would sometimes follow another dog rather than a person. I hoped this dog would come to Annie. When I arrived, Sharyl wasn’t there, so I drove directly to the address of the man who had written the letter. He answered the door and I introduced myself and explained that I was planning on attempting to catch the dog. I asked if he could call my cell and let me know if he saw the dog. He told me a TV News team was on their way to do an interview with him.

It was beginning to rain again, and when I drove to the bottom of the hill and parked at the opening of the ravine, I noticed how muddy and steep most of the area was. It was also full of the dreaded thorn-covered blackberry bramble. Sharyl arrived a few minutes later and handed me the cooked chicken, a few treats and a tennis ball. We were standing there deliberating over where the dog might be hiding when the TV News van pulled up, followed by the man who had written the letter to the newspaper. While they got ready to do their interview at the opening of the ravine, I decided to duck out and start searching for the dog. Annie and I stepped into the mud and started up the ravine.

When I got up about four houses into the ravine, I started carefully looking up the steep slopes to either side so I could see the back of each house. As I glanced up ahead to my left, I suddenly saw the dog. He was standing behind a house and was just a few feet away from the trap the county had left and obviously had no intention of entering it. The dog didn’t move as he watched Annie and me slowly moving closer. Since I wasn’t really sure of the gender of the dog, I started calling out, telling ‘him’ he was a good boy, and then telling ‘her’ she was a good girl. I was looking for any reaction. The dog did not respond, but did not run either. At the point where I lost sight but knew the dog was above me, I started to climb the treacherous side of the ravine. It seemed to take forever and I was afraid the dog would be long gone by the time I reached the top. I tried to step on the thorny blackberry brambles to keep them from catching on my clothes and skin. Annie followed me but she was quickly caught in some of the bramble and couldn’t move past it. She cried out for me to help her and I half slid and half crawled back down a few feet to untangle her. A few seconds later Annie was free and bounded ahead of me the rest of the way up the ravine toward where the dog had been, and disappeared from sight.

When I finally reached the top of the embankment I was surprised and relieved to find the dog was still standing there. Annie was standing only a few feet away, but he did not seem interested in her. He retreated a few feet and watched me as I sank down on my knees in the mud and unwrapped the fresh cooked chicken. I spoke quietly to the dog, reassuring him and arranging some of the strong smelling chicken on a piece of foil. From a glance underneath, I determined the dog was a male. He was shivering and soaking wet. I crawled a few feet forward and he started backing up, then stopped and crept forward a few steps. Progress! I waited but he stood still and wouldn’t come any closer. He avoided looking at me. I put a piece of the chicken on the ground and backed up a few feet. He leaned forward to sniff the air, but still did not approach so I started crawling forward again slowly. This time he did not retreat. A little closer, a little closer, and I was within reach. I held a piece of chicken in the palm of my hand and reached forward. He took a tiny step and leaned forward and gently took the chicken. I slowly took another piece from the package and held it up for him. He was a little bolder now. He liked that garlic chicken! As he finished chewing the piece of chicken, I stroked under his chin with my index finger. I gave him a third piece of chicken and this time I reached into my pocket slowly and slid out a slip lead. I held the lead under his chin and he continued to eat. I raised the top of the lead and it was not quite over his head when he suddenly realized what I was doing and whoosh! He was gone. Over the side of the ravine, across the creek, and up the other side before I could even get to my feet. DAMN! I had been so close. I stood watching him and my heart sank. I was not sure I was going to get another chance.

I knew the group of people I had left at the bottom of the hill would want to know I had almost gotten the dog. But I hadn’t thought to take any of their phone numbers with me. I pulled out my cell phone and called information, and got the number for the news channel. They contacted the news crew down at the bottom of the ravine who called me a few minutes later. I explained what had happened and where the dog was. They told me they would drive there to see the dog and we hung up. I started back down the ravine (much faster going the other way,) crossed the creek and climbed up the other side. The dog saw me coming and took off running down the hill, crossing from house to house. I followed for awhile but knew I had lost my chance. The dog no longer trusted me because he knew what I wanted. Annie and I trekked back down the hill to the opening of the ravine and I told everyone I believed the only hope for getting the dog was to trap it, and he was not going to go near the trap if he knew anyone was nearby. I asked them to stay off the hill. The TV news agreed to continue their story at the home of the man they were interviewing. I took the street route and went back to the house that had the trap chained to the back deck, and baited the trap with chicken. I left a Hansel and Gretel trail of bits of the chicken leading into the trap and then headed back to my car to write a note for the people who had been feeding the dog. The only way he was going to get hungry enough to enter the trap would be if they stopped feeding him.

I finished writing the note and attached it to the front door of the house, but before I left, I decided to creep back down behind the house one last time to see if I could see the dog on the other side of the ravine. What I saw caught my breath. There he was, standing there shivering in the trap. The dog was finally trapped!! He must have seen us leave the hill and headed straight back for that chicken! I stood there reassuring him and quietly called Officer Chuck from the county. Then I called the news crew and they quickly came back so they could get footage of the famous dog, now caught in the trap. We stood there offering words of encouragement and he wagged his tail when we told him he was a good boy. We offered him more chicken but he refused…that stuff got him stuck! Officer Chuck arrived within about ten minutes and we released and transferred the dog to his truck so he could be taken to the shelter and scanned for a microchip. I called Mike and told him if the dog remained unclaimed after the news story ran, we wanted him to be released to our rescue group. I knew a fearful dog like that had no chance of finding a home in a shelter environment.

Three days later, the county animal control had established the dog was a neutered male. He did not have a microchip. He was terrified and very easily spooked at the shelter. He tried to bolt from them several times. They agreed to release him to us so that he would have a chance to rehabilitate in a home environment. I picked him up from the shelter and drove him directly to our veterinarian. He sat in the passenger seat calmly and at one point he even licked my cheek. Doctor Mark established he was about two or three years old. He had a terrible ear infection in both of his ears, and they were swollen and hot, but he seemed otherwise in good health. We gave him a bath and when I sat down on a bench in the waiting room to make some calls, he climbed up on to the bench next to me and licked my cheek again. It was a far cry from the fearful dog I had met in the ravine a few days prior. I called one of our foster mom’s and she came up with her two other dogs to meet him and see if they would get along. He seemed to be calm around the other dogs and wagged his tail when he saw them. His foster named him Sundance. The dog finally had an identity and was going to recover in a safe, warm home.

A week later we had an inquiry from a nice couple who owned a vineyard in the country. They had lost their senior Lab recently and believed it was a sign that they had seen Sundance on the news that day. Jim was smitten the minute he met Sundance. I stressed the urgency that he bond with them before they ever took their eyes off of him outdoors. I believed that Sundance would continue to search for “the coward” who had left him in that ravine until he had formed enough of a bond with someone else, to let that part of his life go. We adopted Sundance to them and over the next six months, we received photos and emails from Jim, and Sundance had indeed thrived in his new home. They adored him. Jim had written a follow-up letter to the editor of the Oregonian, thanking our rescue group for our part in saving Sundance’s life. For my part, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have brought the dog to safety. The vigilante in me still struggles with the reality that there is no hope of finding the person who left Sundance in that ravine. My hope is that all the media coverage opened the door so that while our entire community was talking about the tragedy of this poor dog, someone, who may have considered abandoning an animal, will find a humane option before committing this unspeakable crime.

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