ASHEVILLE, N.C. (Citizen-Times) -- Christmas came a day early this year for an Arden family that received the best gift it could've asked for: the safe return of its dog, Whitney, who was lost in Hendersonville for most of December.
“It was gearing up to be a miserable Christmas without him,” Vivian Weir Dugan told the Citizen Times Monday morning. “We were starting to lose hope until yesterday.”
Vivian and her husband, Jack, were reunited with Whitney, a 7-year-old Aussie mix, on Christmas Eve, 19 days after he went missing. A man, who said he recognized Whitney from the WNC Lost & Found Pets Facebook group, had seen the dog running around in his brother-in-law's backyard and posted a picture of him in the group.
Christy Lovelace, administrator of the Facebook group, passed the tip on to Vivian, and from there she and Jack were able to snatch Whitney before he ran off. Though everything worked out smoothly on Sunday, the Dugans had pursued other tips about Whitney's whereabouts in the time since he went missing. Once, Vivian showed up five minutes after Whitney had disappeared into the woods.
"I went out every day excited and came home crying,” Dugan said, describing how frustrating it was to track down her dog.
Lovelace said that in the years she has been running the lost pets Facebook group, she's never seen an exchange about one dog last so long. Typically, owners either find their animals quickly or they post about them once and nobody ever hears anything about that animal again, she said. Whitney, on the other hand, was basically a celebrity among the members of Lovelace's group.
"It was like this wild goose chase for two weeks," Lovelace said. "He kept slipping through everybody's fingers over and over. There were tears in my eyes I was so relieved when they finally got him. It's just a blessing that it all came together.”
Vivian Dugan sees Whitney's return as “a Christmas miracle” but neither Santa nor any other single person can take the credit. Whitney wouldn't have made it home in time for the holidays if it hadn't been for a massive show of support from the community, Dugan says.
She estimates that no fewer than 75 – though more likely about 100 – people helped her hunt for Whitney after he went missing while in a petsitter's care on Dec. 5. As soon as the Dugans lost Whitney, a rescue who has been with them since he was six months old, Vivian took to social media to ask for help. Primarily using Facebook, she posted the virtual equivalent of fliers on telephone poles, though she posted fliers, too. The response, she said, “was an incredible outreach.”
“I got calls, emails, texts from people all over the place,” Dugan said. “Anywhere I stopped, people would say 'Oh, you're Whitney's mom. We're still looking for him.' It was so heartwarming.”
Heartwarming though the show of support was, there were still some days when Dugan wasn't sure she'd ever see Whitney again. He went missing just three days before December's big snowstorm dumped about a foot of snow on much of Western North Carolina. What's more, he went missing in Hendersonville, a city he's not familiar with, making it nearly impossible for him to find his way home to Arden, Dugan said.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said, but through it all, the Dugans – and the community at large – persevered. In a matter of weeks, Dugan had enlisted the help of local police, mail carriers and total strangers to help her find Whitney. One woman, who Dugan hadn't previously known, even picked her up when she couldn't make it out of her house during the snowstorm.
Dugan said she and her husband responded to tips about Whitney's whereabouts almost daily, spending at least three to four hours a day searching for him. They spent so much time driving around looking for Whitney that their other dog, a 3-year-old Springer Spaniel named Molly, “got tired of riding in the car,” Dugan joked.
Having received the best gift they could've asked for this Christmas, Dugan said it is now their turn to give some gifts. The first will be GPS trackers for both Whitney and Molly.
“I have a lot of thank you notes and tins of cookies to deliver,” Dugan said. “I think I've made lifelong friends through this. These are very special people. They took time out of their busy schedules to drop everything and help me, and I don't take that lightly.”