In my book Always a Next One, I shared the story of how my wife and I came to rescue Gracie, a skittish little Norwegian Elk Hound pursued by a dedicated group of animal rescue volunteers for more than a month before someone finally caught up to her.
Today, I’m going to tell you the story of an even more harrowing rescue attempt that happened only yesterday.
This is Amazing Gracie.
Of course, every member of our pack is special in their own right. But Gracie has endeared herself to the point she is the only dog in the pack with more than one nickname. She’s also the baby of the pack.
Depending on the circumstances, she has been called my sunshine because she brightens my day, our little butter bean because of her somewhat rotund body, the Chupacabra because of her feigned aggression at mealtime, and she’s even been called snicker doodle, for some strange reason — by me.
I can’t begin to explain how or why those words occasionally come out of my mouth when I’m talking to Gracie, so I won’t even try. However, her whole body wiggles with joy when I say her name.
How could anyone not love a dog that looks like a little grey German Shepherd and acts like she loves them with every fiber of her being? How could I help feeling a little more protective of her than I would, say, of a ninety pound German Shepherd who would eat you if you posed a threat to me, or my family?
Compared to the mighty Ox or big, ferocious-sounding Shiloh, Gracie doesn’t appear to be even mildly intimidating. Strangers most often use the words “cute” or “adorable” to describe her.
So without further ado, this was yesterday’s big adventure…
* * * * * *
Now it’s a very good rule of thumb, when you have more than one dog, to periodically conduct a head count to make make sure that the pack members are all present and accounted for.
But yesterday my impromptu head count of the pack came up short one dog.
Gracie was missing.
A quick check of the backyard proved fruitless. She didn’t come when I called her. I checked and double checked the house, but Gracie was nowhere to be found.
I was completely baffled as to how she could have gotten out of the yard. Both fence gates were securely closed. There weren’t any fresh holes dug under the fence where she might have escaped.
Nor could she have escaped through the house without my knowledge.
Nevertheless, Gracie was definitely gone. It was as if she had vanished from the face of the earth. And in one very literal respect, she had.
On those few, rare occasions in the past when Gracie had somehow managed to get out the yard off leash, it had always been pretty easy to figure out how she escaped– invariably, one of the two fence gates had been accidentally left open.
Yet on those rare occasions, it always proved to be relatively easy to find her.
Gracie never wanders very far from home. Her behavior in that regard has always been quite predictable.
In the past when the gate was left open, Grace simply walked around our neighborhood by herself, following the same route I take her on leash.
However this time, there were no obvious answers to the question of how Gracie could have disappeared without a trace yesterday from our backyard.
For a guy who writes detective novels and takes some pride in spending most of his waking hours trying to think like a private detective, I’m ashamed to admit that I was baffled by her disappearance, completely stumped in fact.
It was a mystery to me as I wondered how Gracie could have disappeared like she had in broad daylight — unless someone had deliberately snatched her.
My wife Lisa immediately joined me in the hunt for our missing dog, repeating my methodical search of the backyard. I decided to get in the van and circle our neighborhood to look for Gracie, even though I had no idea how she might have possibly escaped from the yard.
I rolled down the windows so she could hear me as I called to her, but only managed to back out of the driveway when I heard the most heart-wrenching sound in the world as my wife screamed in sheer panic at the top of her lungs: “Gracie…Oh MY GOD! JOHN! COME QUICK!”
Mere words cannot describe the full range of emotions I experienced as I ran for the backyard. Dread filled me with the ugly thought that I was going to be helping Lisa recover Gracie’s lifeless body.
I harbored no delusions that our story might have a happy ending at that moment in time. After all, I had searched the backyard rather thoroughly only a few minutes before and had seen no sign of Gracie. She hadn’t made a sound as I repeatedly called her name, never barked or even whimpered loud enough for me to hear.
At that moment in time, I could think of no reason for optimism. However to my shock and amazement, Gracie didn’t appear to be seriously hurt. But she was in a terrible predicament. The torrential rainstorm overnight had gouged out a deep sinkhole in the side of a small hill in our backyard.
Somehow that sinkhole had swallowed Gracie alive. Her head appeared to be at least four feet below the surface of the earth.
Remembering that scene in retrospect, we now realize that we might never have found Gracie in time, if Ox hadn’t found her for us. Ox stood vigil over the sinkhole until Lisa went to investigate, curious why he refused to budge from a vantage point where there was nothing to see…except, of course, Gracie, at the bottom of a very deep hole.
But it was really deep.
She was panting rapidly, obviously confused and afraid.
To make matters worse, Lisa became convinced that the hole kept getting deeper.
Normally I’m not one to panic, but I admit that seemed to be the most logical and appropriate reaction under the circumstances.
One of Gracie’s front paws was tangled in some tree roots, and appeared to be the only thing keeping her from slipping deeper underground. The earth all around the hole was extremely soft.
It looked as if the hole might cave worse if I even breathed on it too hard. A couple of landscaping bricks were precariously perched in loose soil, right above Gracie’s head.
Before I completely lost my composure, I dialed 9-1-1 and asked for help.
Within minutes, the Alpharetta fire department had answered my call and began to assess the situation.
One of the firemen pulled out the loose landscaping pavers from the dirt just above Gracie’s head and tossed them out of harm’s way.
I tried to grab the remaining brick but it slipped from my fingers and fell into the hole, narrowly missing Gracie’s head.
Acting on instinct, I dove on the ground near the hole in a hopeless attempt to catch the brick before it fell. I only managed to widen the hole as the shelf of dirt caved in, burying Gracie up to her neck.
Her nose, ears and eyes were about all that remained visible.
The rest of her body was almost completely covered by dirt and mud. At that point, I finally realized that I was part of the problem, not the solution.
I was convinced that my well-intentioned efforts to save Gracie were going to kill her. After doing the smart thing and calling for professional help, why hadn’t I just let the firefighters do their job?
I got out of the way so the other firefighters could assist the man at the hole just when he said, “She’s trying to climb out!”
Apparently, as Gracie wiggled around, the dirt that fell on top of her then fell under her feet, and she began inching her way up toward freedom.
She soon had scrambled and clawed to get within reach and a second firefighter reached in and grabbed Gracie by the scruff of her neck.
“I’ve got her!” the lady firefighter exclaimed.
In the blink of an eye, Gracie was running around in the yard, celebrating her moment of freedom before going inside for a desperately needed bath.
I barely had time to shake hands with the men and women who quickly and professionally saved my dog’s life before they were headed back to the station to wait for the next emergency call.
My wife and I cannot thank the Alpharetta fire department enough for their cheerful assistance in our time of most desperate need. They seemed almost as happy about the happy ending as we were.
Postscript: it took 800 pounds of concrete to fill that sinkhole. It’s really scary to think how a hole that deep and dangerous could develop so quickly, literally created overnight by the erosion caused by heavy rainfall.