Zoey and John Vengen

COURTESY PHOTO

John Vengen found Zoey, a 19-month-old shih tzu and terrier mix, after she was lost for 24 days. Vengen live trapped the dog near Piney Ridge Road and reunited Zoey with her owner, Michelle Thomas.

“It’s a happy ending to a story that we thought there was no way it could end well,” said John Vengen, who rescued a 13-month-old dog from the forest using live traps.

Zoey, the little white shih tzu and terrier mix, was lost near Piney Ridge Road on the edge of the Ludington State Park on Friday, Sept. 18. Michelle Thomas was taking three of her dogs for a walk on a trail in the area and Zoey took off when she was startled by two dogs approaching.

“We chased after her, and a little further down the trail, I almost had her and another couple of large dogs came running towards us and scared her more,” Michelle said.

She took her other dogs home then returned to where she last saw Zoey.

“I stayed there until dark that first night. The next morning some friends and I started walking the trails, looking and calling for her,” Michelle said. “I met several people along the road and one... right away jumped in and showed me different places to look. She walked for several hours with me. She’s one who was there all along — any time there was a sighting, I would text her.”

Michelle texted a friend who made a post on Facebook. There were attempts by neighbors, hikers and Michelle to retrieve the dog, but Zoey was too scared to come to them.

“Over the next three weeks, I got calls saying there was a sighting here or there,” Michelle said. “The second week I was told about sightings in the woods, so that’s where I concentrated. I went out every day when I wasn’t working.”

During the first couple days she placed T-shirts with signs asking people to leave them there, hoping Zoey would catch a familiar scent. Later Michelle tried bringing meat to tempt Zoey. She also walked Zoey’s sister, who she also owns, because they would often play together.

At her house, she put out Zoey’s bed and a blanket by the back door in case the dog decided to come home.

Michelle said she drove around town, talking to people and knocking on doors in hopes that someone had seen Zoey.

“I knocked on every door on Piney Ridge Road. Everyone knew the story either because they had seen it on Facebook or the neighbors had passed it on,” she said.

On the third week, Michelle took time off work to keep searching. She was especially thankful for her understanding employer, West Shore Bank.

“I was worried the weather was changing, and she had been without food for three weeks. I wondered how long she could make it,” she said.

Michelle noticed a pattern to where Zoey would be spotted during certain times of the day. Even when Zoey saw Michelle, she would run away, which she contributed to the dog going into survival mode.

“I was talking to someone, and I said it’s almost like we have to trap her because I called her and she ran from me. (The woman) said her neighbor, who was John, had some live traps, and we’d go from there,” she said.

Vengen, who lives on Piney Ridge Road, said he heard people say when they approached the puppy it took off in the other direction, so he started live trapping — a type of trapping that leaves the animal unharmed.

“It was quite the endeavor,” Vengen said. “I ran a set of live bait traps where I knew the dog had been.”

He had never trapped before. It took some trial and error to find out what kind of food would attract the dog.

“I tried sausages, dog food and the cheap hot dogs — which nothing in the woods would eat. I tried Koegel hot dogs, which (Zoey) obviously liked. They’re the best hot dogs you can buy,” he said.

Vengen had a hard time believing the dog would survive a single night, much less 24 days, with all the coyotes and hawks in the area.

“It was in the woods too long, it was only (13 months old) and the wrong color,” he said. “How it survived out there is beyond me.”

He agreed with Michelle that the dog’s instincts kicked in.

“People would tell me they saw it, but ran the other way. It was going more wild than tame because it was in the woods too long,” he said. “There was a whole troop of people looking for this dog, but it wouldn’t come to people any more. It would see people and it would run. It was quite fast — I couldn’t catch it.”

Vengen checked the traps twice a day, sorting through the raccoons and opossums that he caught.

On Monday, Oct. 12, Zoey was found in one of the traps Vengen set.

“I went back to work and (John) texted in the morning me saying he got a (raccoon) today. He let it loose and said he’d keep trying. A couple hours later my phone rang and it was John. He said, ‘We got her. Zoey’s home.’ I screamed and it was the best feeling,” Michelle said. “It was awful not having her.”

John and his wife pulled burrs and ticks off Zoey and gave her a bath.

“I got there and they come out, she’s wrapped in a blanket... I looked at her and right away she knew who I was. They handed her to me in my arms and she snuggled right up to me,” Michelle said.

Michelle hopes her story will give people hope not to give up on their lost pets.

“I know a lot of people say it’s just a dog, but I love dogs and my dogs are everything to me. To know she was out there suffering like that, it was the worst feeling in the world,” she said. “There were a lot of prayers and a lot of tears.”

When Zoey was home at last, Michelle said her landline was ringing off the hook and her friend’s Facebook post was blowing up with comments on how happy they were for Michelle and her puppy.

Michelle said she was grateful to everyone involved and especially for the people on Piney Ridge Road who kept an eye out for Zoey.

“A lot of people would walk around looking for her. There were so many people who helped,” she said. “I can’t say enough about the people on Piney Ridge. It’s like a community in itself and those people went out of their way to help me look for her. They offered encouragement and little things to help, then came John with his traps.”

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