It was the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 1 when the campground host at Heaton Bay campground heard a large diesel truck pull up near the entrance to the popular camping site on Lake Dillon. The truck came in, stopped for a moment, and then rumbled off. Then the campground host heard the sounds of barking.
The Summit County Animal Control & Shelter was called, with a report that two small dogs had been dumped at the campground. Abandoned animals aren’t terribly uncommon, but the way the two Chihuahuas were discarded in a forested area, even a well-attended one, was unusual.
Regardless of the intentions of the person who abandoned the animals at the campground, the situation was very unsafe for the two small animals, each weighing less than 15 pounds.
Aside from exposure to the elements, with winter weather right around the corner, there was also the very real threat of the domesticated pups being attacked by wild animals or starving in a place completely alien to them. For animal control, it was also going to be a challenge to find not one, but two small skittish dogs in a forest without round-the-clock monitoring.
That’s when Summit County’s local pet detectives were called into action. A volunteer group of animal lovers who operate through a Facebook page called “Summit County Loves their Pets!!!” took on the double-dog rescue mission, mere weeks after they made regional news for rescuing Outlaw, another Chihuahua that went missing near Vail Pass for 14 days after an accident there.
Locals Brandon Cuillo, Melissa Davis, Tricia Taylor and Katie Albright took on the effort to find the dogs, with a lot of support from the shelter. They make up part of a revolving volunteer rescue team that has gone out at least 50 times to help find animals lost or missing in Summit County. The group has a reported 95 to 98% success rate for their rescue missions.
The group, which Cuillo started five years ago, was created to fill a void in the community when it came to finding lost pets. Cuillo and his teammates understand the pain and helplessness of losing an animal, and strive to do what they hope anyone else would do if they lose their own pets.
“I have four dogs, they’re my own pack,” Cuillo, who works at Arapahoe Cafe in Dillon, said. “I know what’s like to lose your dog. It sucks to not have your pet.”
For Cuillo and his crew, which was temporarily dubbed “Team Outlaw” during their 14-day frantic dog-hunt in the woods off I-70, the rescues are endeavors that they invest a heavy amount of their time, energy, heart and soul into.
In their search for the two abandoned Chihuahas at Heaton Bay, the group deployed multiple trail cameras, which they hung on trees near where the dogs were last seen, as well as humane steel cage traps with food, water and blankets. The cameras and traps were purchased with funds donated to the group after the attention they received from rescuing Outlaw.
Cuillo, Davis and Taylor then checked the cameras and traps around the clock and on their own time or after work, taking individual shifts from dawn to evening. Each time they refreshed the food and water bowls and checked footage recorded on the trail cam SD cards.
After reviewing footage for the first few days, there was no luck. Aside from a curious fox that was just adventurous enough to check out the food outside the traps, there wasn’t a sign of the dogs.
The team, with a lot of support and help from animal control staff, were undeterred and kept trying, changing up locations for the traps and cameras until they hit pay dirt near Loop B at the campground. The team even came across the dogs in person, but they were too skittish to come close.
Cuillo said he suspected the dogs were related in some way, as one of them seemed fiercely protective of the other, barking and charging at him when he tried to approach. It was later discovered that both dogs are females, with the protective one likely the other dog’s mother based on a pregnancy scar on her tummy.
After several days of getting closer and closer, with more and more frequent sightings on camera, the group nabbed the first of the Chihuahua duo in a live trap during a random check. It turned out to be the younger and more timid of the two dogs, which they named Lucy. They subsequently named the apparent mama dog “Lu.”
On camera, they saw the moment Lucy sprung the trap, with Lu pacing around until a volunteer came back around. Lucy was safely taken back to the shelter, and then the effort focused on capturing the more wily of the duo.
But for several days, Lu was absent. It was now a week after the dogs had been dumped, and the rescuers were reaching a critical stage where hunger and the elements would start taking their toll. The rescue group started getting concerned.
Given the apparent strong affinity the Chihuahuas had for each other, it seemed a good idea to start bringing Lucy back to the site whenever possible to give off her scent and get the attention of the older dog. Animal control officers took their own turns bringing Lucy to the site, walking her around and trying to attract the other dog.
The volunteers, taking advice from animal control officers and using an old hunter’s trick, tried to use scent as an attractant by rubbing shirts all over the younger dog, Lucy, and placing them inside the live traps. And then they patiently waited and checked back at the campground multiple times a day, taking shifts and time out of their own busy lives.
Tricia Taylor, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, said it became obvious that the tactic of trying to use Lucy as bait for Lu was working. About half an hour to an hour after each Lucy visit to the site, the trail cameras picked up Lu sniffing around, looking for her lost companion.
By day 9 of the search, the rescuers were getting close, but the weather was finally starting to turn, with wintery weather expected that night. Time was of the essence — Lu was out there at a most dangerous time, probably weak without food and now having to deal with snow and ocld.
On Thursday, Oct. 10, Melissa Davis, who runs her own corporate event planning company from home while raising her small child, had just visited one of the traps with Lucy about an hour prior, and was driving east on Dillon Dam Road to go back home after running errands in Frisco.
Davis said that she had a funny feeling that she should go check the traps at Heaton Bay, and so she turned into the campground to check.
“Something in my gut told me to stop; I figured, ‘I’m here, I might as well check the trap,” Davis said. “I saw one of the gates for the trap was closed. I didn’t hear anything, so I assumed a raccoon or fox got trapped. But lo and behold, it was Lu!”
Lu was resting calmly in the covered cage after being lured in by Lucy’s scent and the food inside, visiting just 10 minutes after Davis had left. The rescue mission was over and was a complete success, despite the scant odds of finding both dogs alive with all the risks involved.
“Summit County Loves their Pets!” got the news immediately, and the community of 2,999 members was overjoyed.
Lu and Lucy are now safe, warm and fed at the shelter in Frisco, located at 83 Nancy’s Place. Donna Corcel, administrative support and humane educator at the shelter, said the dogs had cleared the 10 day wait period to see if anyone would come to claim the dogs — which was not expected to happen — and had been checked out by a vet with a clean bill of health. The Chihuahuas have been spayed, vaccinated and microchipped, and are now at the shelter waiting to be adopted into a loving home.
Lucy has been estimated to be about a year old, while Lu a year and a half. Though it’s still undetermined what relation the two dogs have to each other, they are very much a bonded pair, and the shelter would prefer they be adopted out together.
“They survived all those cold nights, they’re cuddly and give kisses. They’re both balls of love,” Corcel said.
Despite the happy result at the end, Corcel strongly urged anyone who considers giving up an animal to do it the proper way — either come into the shelter and surrender the animal in person, or at the very least use one of the surrender boxes located on the exterior of the shelter, which are available 24/7 to leave an animal. Just open the door and leave the animal at any time, day or night. The shelter is located at 83 Nancy’s Place, across from the county commons in Frisco.
The boxes are heated, have water and are checked regularly, and are the safest and most effective way to give up an animal. They are also the best place to leave animals outside of business hours and during weekends.
As far as the heroic volunteers who spent over 100 hours of their own time for the rescue, it was all entirely worth it, as it is every time they go out into the cold, dark woods to find someone’s lost companion.
The group is considering creating their own non-profit to make their operation legitimate, and to put more resources into helping locals find their animals. They are wary of the time commitment it will take, given that they all work full-time and have personal lives to tend to.
But depending on interest and volunteer support they receive, Summit County might have its own pet detective agency up and running sometime in the future, giving local pet owners hope that if their furry loved ones ever get loose, there will be some good, dedicated people on hand to help.