It’s been a rough few weeks, with major ups and downs. Son Cass took a job at a ski hill near Laramie, so we fixed a Thanksgiving feast a week early since he was about to head off to the new job. Two miles from our house, on a slick wintery road, he drove his BMW off an embankment above the New Fork River. We’re so thankful he walked away from the wreck. We loaded his gear into a ranch truck and he left, making it to the job on time.
That left us short a vehicle, and although we’d been looking for another truck for about a month, we hadn’t found the right match. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, I found just the right truck, located in Provo, Utah. We made all the arrangements, and on Thanksgiving Day, Jim and I locked up the dogs that weren’t on duty with the ewe herd, and had a pleasant drive down to retrieve my new ride. It’s a primo 2000 Chevy shortbed 4×4, manual transmission.
The next afternoon, all the dogs at our place were free and lounging around outside while we did various chores. Jim and I loaded a ram and two lambs into a trailer at the house, driving the three miles (just ½ mile on a highway, and the rest on a nearby county road) to drop the ram into one pasture, and then backtracking to check the ewe herd, located in another pasture closer to home. Because there was a short snow squall while we were trying to find the ram herd, it took longer than we had expected, but we were gone an hour. When we pulled back up to the house, our Akbash Rena wasn’t there to greet us. Vega, another adult female guardian, and our herding dogs, were all accounted for, so we knew there hadn’t been a predator event while we were gone, or Vega would have been involved. We searched the nearby Mesa, but called the sheriff’s office because we knew someone had to have picked Rena up.
Rena is not a typical livestock protection dog. We picked her out of a litter to photograph her life, as she grew up with a young burro and a set of orphan lambs. The children’s book describing her life had just been released two months ago (The Guardian Team: On the job with Rena and Roo). We’d intentionally socialized Rena from a young age to make her an “ambassador dog.” She attended book signings, schools, libraries, fairs, and agency meetings so that people could personally meet and touch a livestock guardian. She travels well, and loves to work a crowd, demanding attention and pets. She’d met more than 2,000 Wyoming school children in her four years of life, and dozens of state and national policy makers – including most recently USDA Undersecretary Ed Avalos. Because Rena was human socialized, she was easy to steal. She’d been “rescued” once before, when an oilfield shuttlebus driver thought she was too close to the road, so the woman called Rena to the shuttle bus and loaded her up. I chased the shuttle to town, retrieving my dog and NOT punching anyone in the nose.
But this time, I had no idea who had taken Rena. Was it another well-intended but mistaken rescue? I did a short post on Facebook noting that I had a sheep dog missing, but not providing any details. Jim and I put in calls to all the vet clinics, law enforcement, and animal control and rescue organizations in western Wyoming, and it quickly became apparent that whoever had Rena hadn’t made a move toward reuniting her with her home.
We decided to announce that the missing dog was actually Rena, Wyoming’s most famous livestock guardian dog, friend to children, and star of the new book. The story took off like wildfire, with several media organizations picking it up and providing some excellent coverage. It was going to be very hard for someone to hide this 130-pound, beautiful dog, with thousands of eyes looking for her.
Jim and I were just sick with worry. We had six miserable days of calling vet clinics and rescue groups, talking to law enforcement, and dealing with the wonderful but somewhat overwhelming response of people who were trying to help find Rena. I alternated between crying and wanting to use explosives.
Then early Thursday morning, six days after Rena disappeared, our telephone started ringing. Four calls within a short period of time – Rena had been spotted just a few miles away, traveling down the side of the highway, headed for home. Jim raced down the road and found her. Rena was no worse for the wear – when she came into the house, she was not hungry, had been freshly groomed, and had a sweet shampoo smell. The only problem we could see was that her butt was dirty – she had apparently been fed something that her system didn’t like. She had been cared for, but the person who took care of her didn’t drop her off at home, where our big living room windows provide a view for miles. Fortunately, one neighbor and several oilfield workers were on the lookout for Rena and got word to us quickly when she was spotted. We’re betting Jim was able to retrieve Rena within minutes of her being deposited along the highway, from the flurry of calls we received.
We’ve had problems with people “rescuing” livestock protection dogs before – and even “rescuing” lambs – an act that is also called livestock rustling. The fact is that some people do not approve of the lives lived by working dogs. That our livestock protection dogs have been bred and selected for thousands of years to do what they do – stay with the sheep round the clock, guarding them from harm – is frowned upon by those who believe these are pets that should be indoors when it’s cold outside.
Last winter I had the problem of some “Good Samaritan” stopping in to the entrance of one of our pastures where I fed the guardian dogs at a livestock trailer every day. This person began feeding my dogs – actually dumping out onto the ground a whole bag of junk dog food that my dogs refused to eat. Besides scaring me terribly with the threat that someone could try to poison or harm my dogs, and the threat of having my dogs associate with strangers, the junk food then served to attract ravens and other predators. We shoveled the junk into buckets and fed it to the coyotes a few miles away. We ended up stringing a rope barricade across the cattle guard entryway, with a note attached, telling the person to quit feeding and endangering my dogs, noting my name and phone number should the person want to talk about how my dogs were being cared for. It stopped the problem, but I do wonder if the same person was at it again, with Rena’s disappearance.
We were very lucky to get Rena back, and for that, we are very thankful. Rena was not micro-chipped, but that wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, since the person who took her did not take her to a vet or agency. Rena’s human socialization, which makes her so popular with children, is what made her so vulnerable. Thank heavens so many people cared about this dog, made a ruckus about her being gone, and helped to keep the pressure on until Rena was returned to us.
We are going to seek a change in state law to protect our dogs: If you rescue a dog, you need to notify someone of your action. Otherwise, it’s theft. If it’s not yours, and you take it, you’re a thief.
Here’s a few images of today’s reunion. Rena and her mother – Rena has her tongue sticking out.
And Rena and her Roo: