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Multi-day search effort locates fortunate dog
Otis, the dog that was the focus of a successful, multi-day search in Ketchikan in late February and early March, is seen in this undated image. Photo courtesy of Jen MacDonald

Daily News Staff Writer

Otis the dog got spooked.

Then, Otis ran. He ran across N. Tongass Highway and was hit by a car. Then, Otis ran some more, up a driveway and into the woods.

His shocked and distraught owners, Jen MacDonald and Brett Hinkle, had seen it all unfold. They tried to catch up with him, but could not.

When they realized Otis wasn’t coming back, they began to assemble a search team. That was at dusk Wednesday, Feb. 27.  

By the time the search ended in the early morning hours of March 4, more than 30 people had been involved in the effort to find Otis, the family said. Recently, the core group of searchers gathered at a local restaurant to share details of the saga.

MacDonald and Hinkle had been visiting a friend, Cindy Hoggard, who was planning to care for Otis and their other dog, Cody, while the MacDonald and Hinkle family took a trip during the last weekend of February.     

“Both of the dogs jumped out of our car and ran right to their door, excited as ever, and Otis suddenly saw something,” MacDonald said. “He totally got spooked and like — he’s never done this before — he just completely did a complete turnaround and booked it straight out of their yard right into Tongass (Highway.”

Hinkle said Otis turned and looked at them briefly two times, seeming to reconsider, before turning and sprinting into the path of a car.

It was impossible for the driver to see the large, black Labrador retriever mix.

“She hit him square right in the center of the bumper, and knocked him forward,” Hinkle said of the driver. But Otis “shook his head, got up, and he bolted straight up.”

MacDonald said she “fully expected to see a flat dog, and I was astonished.”

Otis didn’t appear to be limping, she said. They saw no blood.

The driver stopped and appeared very distraught, the couple said.

“We searched the woods like crazy that night,” MacDonald said. “It was freezing, it was like, 20-something degrees that night.”

Hoggard and her husband, Darryl Hoggard, asked Cheryl Henley, the owner of the home that Otis sprinted past, for permission to search around her property that night, and she immediately granted it.

Henley also provided an enticing clue in the mystery of Otis’ disappearance. Henley’s daughter reviewed security camera footage, which showed a glimpse of Otis running past the house and into the woods.

“So that gave a good starting point, and he was going at a good pace,” Cindy Hoggard said.

She said she and her husband entered the woods, veering south, and it wasn’t long before Cindy Hoggard saw tracks. She called her husband over to inspect them, depending on his expertise as a veteran hunter and tracker. They looked to be the fresh tracks of a large dog.

She said that although they were encouraged, continuing to track Otis wasn’t feasible.

“It was after 10 at night,” Cindy Hoggard said. “It was getting cold, and we weren’t properly dressed, we didn’t have the gear, and we didn’t know the topography — we’d never been back there.”  She added that her husband decided it was just too dangerous to search the area in the dark. They decided to resume their search in the morning.

“I will say, you guys are like military strategists,” Hinkle said to Cindy Hoggard, at the restaurant table. “You guys are amazing.”

Hoggard said it was fortunate that the snow and temperatures helped to preserve Otis’s tracks. On the night he disappeared, the snow was soft enough to hold paw-print impressions. The temperature dropped overnight, hardening the prints. The more-frustrating aspect of the hard-frozen snow was that it wasn’t allowing Otis’ fresher tracks to be preserved.

The Hoggards kept tracking him, however, thinking they likely were tracking a dog that was curled up and probably expired, but they wanted to bring him home.

The Hoggard family, like others who joined the search, had a special tie to Otis that went beyond mere affection for a nice dog.

Otis had beat the odds before, as a newborn puppy. He was found, only days old, under a pile of his littermates, all of which had frozen to death. The bodies of the other puppies had kept him warm enough to save his life.

Ketchikan Humane Society members stepped in to hand-raise Otis with a team of volunteers. The Hoggards were one of those families, as was the MacDonald/Hinkle family. Through their work and devotion, Otis grew into the 97-pound gentle character he is today.

Cindy Hoggard quickly created a text message group of 12 people so searchers could share new clues, ideas and information.

The Hoggards continued finding tracks, and determined that Otis had headed north, seeming to be staying in the area of the North Tongass Volunteer Fire Station 8, at about 13 miles north.

“Every night, Darryl and I had our Otis conversation,” Hoggard said. “‘What’s Otis thinking, what’s Otis doing,’ before we cooked dinner. It kept our hope up.”

She said that they also would create their search strategy for the next day.

MacDonald made “lost dog” posters and distributed them to area homes, along with food homeowners could leave out to lure Otis in. The group also set food, clothing items and toys in strategic spots with the same idea.

Each day of searching was filled with tracking, hiking, strategizing and sharing ideas with fellow searchers.

Boyd Porter, a family friend and retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife management biologist, also spent some time in the field, helping to interpret tracks, Hoggard said.

With Porter’s help, they determined that Otis was circling around above the fire department, trying to find the correct direction. MacDonald said she’d read an article about lost dog behavior in which the author said that when a dog is lost, it can fall into an almost feral mode as they are disoriented and terrified.

Hope surged Thursday night, the second night of the search, when another friend of Otis’, Chrissy Curth, saw Otis on the side of the highway near the fire station. Although Otis had known Curth from puppyhood, he spooked and ran back up the hill.

MacDonald said she posted a message about the status of the search every day on social media, and she was amazed to see that one message had been shared more than 300 times.

On the third day of the search, Porter helped the family set up a trap in hopes of luring Otis in.

“Nothing touched the food in it for two days, I think,” Hinkle said.

MacDonald said she also was a bit worried that they were attracting predators with all of the food they were leaving out to attract Otis, but they felt it was necessary to help draw him in.

After Curth saw Otis near the fire station, she and Hinkle held a cookout there, hoping the smells of grilling chicken would attract him. They even left some chicken behind for him, but only ravens seemed interested.

MacDonald’s and Hinkle’s son, Gavin Hinkle, also was involved in the search for Otis. Gavin had given the dog his name when Otis was a puppy.

“They are inseparable,” Brett Hinkle said, and Gavin Hinkle, sitting near his parents at the restaurant table, smiled and nodded. Gavin’s older brother, Grant Hinkle, also helped with the search.

The family had adopted Otis when he was five weeks old.

“Every three hours, we had to get up, mix gruel in the middle of the night, we would take shifts and, you know, he was like a human baby,” Brett Hinkle said.

The family described Otis as very sweet, very smart and able to perform many tricks. Otis also likes to give people big toothy grins.

Hoggard said that the most difficult part of the multi-day search for Otis was “staying positive.”

The search team worried about injuries Otis may have sustained, the possibility Otis would be hit by another car and the very cold temperatures.

“I think I only had four hours of sleep a night,” MacDonald said. As their home is about 15 miles from where Otis disappeared, it was challenging to spend so many hours searching for him north of town.

Hoggard said there were many helpful people concerned about Otis during the search. On Friday, she said that when she and other searcher came out of the woods, they were discouraged and wondering what to do next.

As they passed a house nearby, the dogs there began to bark. The homeowner ran out and peered under her deck, and when she saw the searchers, she told them she had been hoping to see Otis there.

A friend of a friend, Kyle Zimmerman, deployed his drone in the search.

They also found a few people who were driving the area roads looking for Otis, including an Alaska State Trooper, who said he was looking for Otis as he drove his rounds.

The searchers said they also were extremely grateful for the fire department personnel, who were very welcoming, even with the increased traffic as searchers combed the area and the grounds for Otis.

Simple support from community members also was greatly appreciated, Hoggard said, such as delivery of sandwiches to those on the ground, and friends Marina and Sharon McIntyre, who hosted a group of searchers at their home.

“Just to have that support group, from in the middle of the woods,” Hoggard said, was incredibly important.

Marina McIntyre said, “We love Otis like a part of our family, too, and I think it was impressive that so many people were reaching out to us too.”

McIntyre added that she knew many people in the community who came together for the search.

“That inspired us to keep looking, and to not give up hope,” she added.

Midday Sunday, Brett Hinkle had heard a car honking on the highway, near the fire department. The search team realized that could be a clue — Otis could possibly have been wandering into the highway again. Hoggard sent a text to the group to alert them, but no one was able to sight Otis when they reached the area.

Cindy May, who owns the “Waggin Tails” boarding kennel and doggy daycare facility in the Ward Cove area, knew Otis well as one of her boarders.

Late Sunday night, on the fourth night of Otis’ disappearance, May had an inspiration. She had been driving the roads six or seven times daily in search of the dog, every day since he’d disappeared.

May said, “People think I’m nuts, but for some reason that night at about 10:30 I was headed to bed and I walked in and told my husband, ‘I’m going to go look for Otis,’ and he went, ‘Ah, whatever,’ because he just assumed that he had passed.”

May drove to the end of the road north, and saw some deer and some bear, then drove back to the Ward Cove area.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to make one more pass,’” May said.

She said was nearing the area of the North Tongass Fire Department when she saw the glowing eyes of an animal near the road.

“I saw these — you see a lot of deer there, but they have blue eyes when your lights hit them — they were these orange-red eyes that came from the water side and then went up the hill, and then I lost sight of them. I thought ‘well, dang.’”

She drove back by the area, and neared the Ketchikan Public Utilities substation north of the fire station.

“I went back, pulled over, put my emergency flashers on, rolled down my window, went ‘Otis!’ and he was right by my door,” May said.

She said she was afraid to open her door, in case that would spook him again, but, with no other choice, she carefully opened it.

“I very carefully opened up the door and said, ‘Hi Otie!” and then she asked him, “You wanna go for a ride?”

He jumped into her car without hesitation.

At five minutes after midnight, more than four days after Otis had gone missing, May called MacDonald, “bawling” with joy, with the news that she had found Otis, alive and apparently healthy.

“Best middle-of-the-night call ever,” MacDonald said, laughing.

MacDonald, who’d slept in a few different places during the days of the search, said she was disoriented when May’s call came in, not sure where she was when awakened.

“I had no idea where I was, and then it clicked — I knew I was near the car wash and so she said she was going to meet me there, so I’m sitting at the car wash, and I’m like, ‘Why am I even here? This is all a dream, why did I end up at the car wash?”

MacDonald said she had to look at her phone to confirm that the good news was a real thing.

Hoggard had worked a long day searching for Otis, and the news was a shock for her as well.

“I’d been up since 1:30 in the morning Sunday, because I got up and started looking from two to four,” Hoggard said. “I passed out before dinner. I bolted upright at about 12:15 a.m.”

She said she checked her phone and saw one last update hours earlier with no good news, so she took her dogs out quickly. When she got back inside, she checked her phone again, and there was a message from MacDonald that May had found Otis.

“I was like, ‘What? This isn’t real,’” Hoggard said.

Otis received a full veterinary workup the day after he was found, and a healing pneumothorax was found, as well as scrapes and swelling on the tops of his paws and on his lip. Otherwise, he’d only lost one and a half pounds, and was in good health.

“I think the big thing, is the community,” MacDonald said of the entire experience.

Otis’s family is not only now “spoiling” Otis, but also is researching GPS-fitted collars, and keeping him securely on leash at all times.

“It was an amazing effort by everybody,” Brett Hinkle said.

Daily News Staff Writer Danelle Landis participated in part of the search efforts for Otis as a concerned individual.