Everything was looking up for Ricardo Rodriguez when he visited the Tahoe area for a job opportunity in August, bringing his dog, Russ, with him.
But things took a turn for the worst when Russ went missing. Ricardo and his friends spent hours looking for him and called local shelters to report him as missing, but their search was cut short when the Caldor Fire led to evacuations.
“After months of not hearing back from anyone, I assumed he was in good hands with a different owner,” Ricardo said. “I was hopeful that one day he would return.”
In four months time, Ricardo’s refusal to let go of hope would prove to be worth it.
On December 16th, two friends were skiing near Twin Peaks when they noticed a black dog stuck in a tree well. Unable to reach him, they took photos and shared them in a Facebook group in hopes the right people would find it.
Enter in Wendy Jones, the founder of Tahoe PAWS and TLC 4 Furry Friends. This amazing woman, along with her team, are professionally trained to find missing pets throughout the Sierra and Western Nevada.
Because Wendy was busy rescuing another pet, she quickly recruited two volunteers: Leona Allen and Elsa Gaule.
“We didn’t even hesitate,” Leona said. “This was a one-shot deal, we either got him or he didn’t survive the night.”
Officer Kyle Shumaker of the El Dorado County Animal Control was also alerted but didn’t have the equipment to reach Russ himself. Instead, he helped by giving the two volunteers a sled to assist them on their snowy, up-hill trek.
The temperature was already frigid and set to drop to negative 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and the five feet of freshly fallen snow certainly didn’t help. But with snowshoes strapped to their feet, Leona and Elsa made their way toward Russ using the photos from Facebook, a map, and dog tracks they discovered in the snow.
“I looked up in my headlamp and saw this dark blob in the snow under the tree well, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s the dog, and he’s not alive anymore.’ So I walked up, and all of a sudden he opened his eyes and lifted his head, and I screamed,” Leona said. “It was just involuntary.”
After experiencing what Leona said was the “happiest moment” she’s ever had, her and Elsa came up with a game plan. The first step? Gaining Russ’ trust.
Luckily, this step didn’t take long. Although he was scared at first, even growling at them a bit, Elsa simply decided to try and pet him.
“I took my hand and put it under his chin, and he rested his head on my hand right away,” Elsa said.
Now that they had become best friends, it was time to get warm! At first, they wrapped Russ in a blanket on the sled, but he refused to stay. Turns out, all he needed was a cuddle buddy because, as soon as Leona sat with him, they officially began their decent to safety, though Russ did have to be carried once the sled tipped.
Despite surviving treacherous weather conditions, including fires, Russ was found to be totally healthy. His microchip was scanned ASAP, but since it hadn’t be renewed, they had to do some digging.
Thankfully, though, the last location it had for him helped animal control track down one of the lost dog reports that Ricardo and his friends had put out for Russ back in August.
“When contacted, the owner was ecstatic to find out that his dog was alive!” TLC 4 Furry Friends wrote on Facebook.
Until Ricardo could reunite with Russ, his rescue team made sure to visit him everyday, something the sweet pitbull greatly appreciated. He was especially fond of Leona, never leaving her side anytime she’d drop by the shelter.
“I’ve worked some pretty gnarly rescues, this probably being the top,” Leona said. “I keep reliving the moment when he opened his eyes and lifted his head, and just the joy and elation inside of me was overwhelming. It’s one more life that gets to live happy and warm and safe.”
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