By Lee J. Kahrs
LEICESTER — Having a runaway dog is a heartbreaking experience for any pet owner. The first few days of frantic searching, the Facebook posts asking for help, the constant vigilance scanning the fields and walking, calling your dog’s name. If you’re lucky, those efforts pay off and you find your dog, but so often, days turn into weeks and hope fades.
That’s where Mort Pierpont was on Aug. 29. His 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, Darby, ran away from the pet sitter on Aug. 3 while Pierpont and his family were in Maine sending their oldest son off to college.
The family home is just a couple of miles from the Otter Creek swamp, roughly 14,000 acres of swampland that lies in Brandon and Leicester and stretches all the way to Cornwall.
“The hard part was, you’re away trying to get your kid acclimated to school,” Pierpont said. “You don’t know what to do and you’re four hours away. I just said, ‘I gotta go home’.”
With his family’s blessing (they all wanted to go), Pierpont came home to Leicester and started a diligent daily routine based on the advice of friends who do animal rescue. He set up three game cameras and started going out walking three hours a day, every day, in different directions. He would take one of his day-old worn T-shirts and drag it on a rope behind him to spread his scent around the area, hoping Darby would pick up on it. He kayaked the swamp from the Leicester River to Route 7. He borrowed a humane trap from the Rutland County Humane Society. Pierpont estimates he walked over 180 miles looking for Darby. For weeks there was no sign of her.
Pierpont was aided in his search by his 4-year-old chocolate Lab, Jack. Two days before Darby’s return, Pierpont took Jack out searching with him, and Jack alerted on possible ground scents more than once, two miles north of the house. The family also has an 8-year-old English setter named Emma.
On the night of Aug. 29, Pierpont said, he was getting ready to call it a night when he started hearing his chickens.
“I could hear them making a ruckus, which was unusual because they’re usually quiet at night in the coop,” he said. “I shined a light out there and these eyes were staring back at me.”
Emma ran out to see none other than Darby sitting next to the coop.
“She was very weak and scared,” Pierpont said. “We got her in the house and she was so skinny.”
Darby weighed 60 ponds when she went missing and came home 16 pounds lighter. The next day, Darby went to the Rutland Veterinary Clinic in Castleton. She was given fluids and probiotics to kick-start and protect her digestive system.
“The only thing that looked normal was her head,” Pierpont said. “She has dry skin, and her nose and eyes are dry. She lost some hair on her legs, but generally she’s OK.”
Pierpont’s friend, Karen Demay, is a veterinarian from Orwell. She advised Pierpont to give Darby just a half-cup of food at a time and not too much water as her digestive system reacclimates to food.
Facebook had been hopping with folks following Darby’s case, wondering if every black Lab-looking dog that was found in the area was Darby. The lost dog posting was shared by a Facebook group in New Hampshire 115 times, as was the news of her miraculous return.
Pierpont said Darby isn’t back to her old self yet, but he is seeing signs.
“She doesn’t go too far these days,” he said. “She’s tentative but her personality is there. She’s a talker and she just has a very large personality, which is why she is so loved.”
All in all, he couldn’t ask for a happier ending.
“It’s been a big, big relief,” Pierpont said. “We all love our pets.”
In the meantime, Darby is returning to her old self.
“We knew she was getting back to normal when she started harassing the cats,” he said. “They get into a staring contest, and then she just lays on them.”