John Yuschak was navigating an icy stretch of Chicken Bridge Road in rural Pittsboro, NC, the morning of Feb. 19 to return the rented movie “Gone Girl” that he and his wife Sherrie enjoyed the night before.
He was accompanied by Dezi and Jemma, the couple’s two greyhounds who are always ready for a ride. With the rear seat flipped up, Dezi was in his usual position on the floor of the couple’s Nissan Titan crew cab pickup, long nose sniffing the air from a rolled down back window, Jemma content to lay by his side.
Not long into the trip, Yuschak felt the truck slide on a slick spot and corrected by turning into the skid. At that moment, the front wheels hit drive payment and John lost control. The truck left the road, plowed into two trees, and came to a tilted stop in a shallow ditch. The pickup was totaled but its occupants were uninjured if shaken.
“The truck came to a rest with the open window lower to the ground and Jemma jumped out and began running down the road with Dezi following,” says Sherrie, who is the clinical behavior technician with the NC State University Behavioral Medicine Service. “John ran after them, trying to use a calm voice since the dogs were frighten. He retrieved Dezi but Jemma ran out of sight.”
A nearby home owner heard the impact and called 911. Police and fire fighters responded and Dezi and John were put into the fire truck to warm up and calm down. “My husband didn’t tell the police he wasn’t feeling so great because he was afraid they would take him to a hospital. He was more concerned about Jemma,” says Sherrie.
Yuschak called a friend and as soon as the rescue personnel left, the two followed Jemma’s tracks in the snow. They led to a large pasture and disappeared in tall grass amid the numerous cattle hoof prints. The search for Jemma had begun.
Sherrie left work to join John immediately after calling her mother who, in turn, went online to contact area animal shelters. She also contacted the Pet FBI website and filled out information for Pet Amber Alert, a national service that calls businesses and residences within 25 miles of the pet’s last location. Each number is called up to four times an hour until the call is answered. The service also creates a pdf poster with an 800 number for people to call.
By now neighbors—Paul Drake, an architecture graduate student at NC State, among them—were looking for Jemma and information went out by way of social media. Triangle Greyhound Society, NC Greyhound Adoption Promotion, and Project Racing Home (an adoption agency where the Yuschaks found five-year-old Jemma just before Christmas) alerted their members.
“Once it got out to the greyhound community people who did not even know me were calling and texting,” says Sherrie. “They were either coming to help or were driving around the area. Someone even created a dog tent with a tarp and had a blanket and food in it.”
Sherrie says they continued searching until dark when they went home and made calls to see if they could find someone who had a search dog. Monica Brook, a vet technician in NC State’s Veterinary Hospital, offered the name of an individual and plans were made for that person to come out on Friday.
“Dr. Orlando (Dr. Jillian Orlando, a resident with the Behavioral Medicine Service) came out and was posting flyers at 9:30 that night,” says Sherrie. “We went back out and searched until 11:30, using voice calls and a “Squawker”, a devise used to train racing greyhounds. We put blankets, food, and my socks in two different areas.”
By now more than 12 hours had passed and the situation was becoming desperate. Lean greyhounds have little body fat and 55-pound Jemma had an unusually thin coat, and no covering at all on her belly. The predicted low that night was 2 degrees with an expected high Friday of only 22.
The search renewed Friday at daylight. A meeting place was designated, posters placed, maps made and distributed, and search teams organized and sent out in different sectors.
Lutra and Beth Case came to help at about 10:30 that morning. By now, Jemma had been missing nearly 24 hours in freezing temperatures. Case is a research assistant with the College of Veterinary Medicine Comparative Pain Research Lab. Lutra is her friendly eight-year-old black Labrador retriever. Case learned of Jemma’s plight Thursday afternoon through Facebook and received a phone call from Dr. Orlando that night asking if she knew of tracking dogs.
“I texted Dr. Orlando when I came in Friday morning to see how things were going,” says Case. “When I heard Jemma was still missing I decided to bring Lutra and see if we could help.”
John Yuschak led Lutra and Case to a specific search area and the pair began hiking down a trail, Lutra off leash. “I had no idea if Lutra had any idea of what we were doing,” says Case. “She does not have any formal search training; she just loves to go scenting. So we set off and every once in a while I’d say ‘find it’, which is the command I use in our fun barn hunts.”
Lutra and Case were approaching the large pasture area where Jemma’s tracks disappeared but coming from a different direction than previous searches. The area had been checked three times by others.
“We reached the pasture and Lutra went around this big bush pile by a windbreak of trees,” says Case. “All of a sudden, she stops and her hackles go up. I wondered what kind of wild animal she cornered. It took several seconds for me to realize I was seeing a dirty greyhound curled into a very tight ball. Jemma was in a small depression she must have dug in the frozen ground. I couldn’t believe it. Lutra found Jemma!”
Case’s excited voice mail to Sherrie went to a garbled text message. “I didn’t understand what I was reading,” Yuschak said, “but then saw the words ‘alive….alive’ and I started to cry. Jemma was found alive!”
Lutra’s barking brought John and fellow searcher Stephen Puryear, an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State, to the far end of the pasture where Jemma, wrapped in Case’s coat and neck covering, was shivering. Case says she knew not to rub or massage Jemma’s legs because that could cause tissue damage if they were frostbitten. Even warming a greyhound too quickly can cause heart problems.
Jemma was rushed to the General Practice area of the NC State Veterinary Health and Wellness Center where Dr. Brenda Stevens was waiting. The greyhound was started on an IV catheter and given a liter of warm fluids. Blood work came back satisfactory and Jemma was given a little food and started on pain medication.
“She was moaning all day Friday and didn’t look good even as late as Sunday,” says Sherrie. “But she woke up Monday morning, stretched, and was bouncing and tail wagging ready for breakfast. She was finally out of the woods—figuratively as well as literally. John and I are so grateful. We could not believe all the help and expressions of concern we received.”
As for hero dog Lutra? She thoroughly enjoyed the beef steak Beth Case promised her as a special “finder’s” reward when they began their search that Friday morning.