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Searching for Bertie 

How Humboldt Paws Cause mobilized to find a missing dog

click to enlarge Tim McDonald and Julie Geary with Bertie back home.

Photo by Tim McDonald

Tim McDonald and Julie Geary with Bertie back home.

For Tim McDonald and Julie Geary, schoolteachers from the Los Angeles area, a July road trip up the coast with a stop in Arcata to see friends from his Humboldt State University days, was both a first and a last chance to get away after a year hunkered down and before the new school year.

Traveling with them was Bertie, the tan-and-white pit bull they'd adopted from a shelter in 2020. On the evening of July 17, while the couple visited friends in Sunny Brae and Bertie was in his bed in the back of an SUV just 30 feet away, someone smashed in the car's window. When McDonald checked on him minutes later, Bertie was gone.

It's every pet owner's worst nightmare: the dog that slips its leash or bolts through an unlatched gate, or the cat that doesn't come home. Bringing pets and their people back together has been the mission of Humboldt Paws Cause since 2012. It's reunited more than 10,000 animals — not just dogs and cats, but rabbits, horses, goats, pigs, even bird and turtles — since it began tracking the numbers in 2015.

Using the online community bulletin board is simple. Anyone who's lost a pet or who spots a loose animal can post on the website with a photo and location, or, if they prefer social media, on its Facebook page, which has more than 17,000 followers. Pet owners can even post via one of four radio stations (KHUM, KSLUG, KWPT and KLGE) whose DJs read lost and found postings live on the air.

The organization is sponsored by Myrtle Avenue Veterinary Hospital, Fin-N-Feather and Lost Coast Communications, who provide financial support. Managing the heavy volume of posts are a handful of site administrators.

Chere (who asked that her last name not be used) is one of them. In the nine years since HPC's launch, she said, there's never been a day without a post. "It's seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said. "A ballpark average is 15 new posts a day, though some days it can be closer to 25."

Maintaining the site entails cross-posting between the website and Facebook page, updating posts, sometimes contacting posters when sightings of their lost pets come in or calling the owner if the animal is found deceased.

The search for Bertie is an example of how the HPC community mobilizes. "There were 2,000 shares," said Chere. "Everybody was looking."

A friend of Geary and McDonald's jumped on the HPC website and found that two reports had already been posted: A dog matching Bertie's description, right down to his blue bandana, was running south on Old Arcata Road.

The couple and their friends set out at once, but after hours combing the dark woods, they called off the search for the night.

By first light, they were at it again. A sighting came in from Graham Road, another from a logging road near Jacoby Creek, and a third on the creek at the edge of a woman's yard nearby.

Days passed and leads turned up empty. The couple put up 600 "lost dog" posters, which were also downloadable from the HPC website. Paws Cause continued to repost Bertie's story, reminding followers he was still out there. His owners followed up on more than 60 leads, plotting them on a map. They slept in their car with the doors open and treats tied to the roof. They offered a $1,000 reward. But their two-day stop in Humboldt had stretched into two weeks and their time was up; they had to return home to start work. They were in tears when they left Aug. 2.

Arcata resident Jan Carr is a local animal tracker with extensive experience in animal rescue. She and her rescue partner Gina LaRee Nickell occasionally collaborate with Paws Cause on challenging cases and she'd been following Bertie's story.

"They were doing everything right — everything I would have done," Carr said of Geary and McDonald. She contacted the couple through HPC and, after meeting, volunteered to take over the search. McDonald would continue to field calls and pass leads to Carr.

"It was like they were leaving their child behind," Carr said. "I decided, come hell or high water, I was getting that dog."

Two days later on Aug. 4, McDonald was shopping for classroom supplies when he received a text. A logger with Steve Wills Trucking and Logging who'd seen one of the posters said he'd spotted Bertie in the woods near Quarry Road, in the Jacoby Creek watershed.

McDonald gave the caller Carr's number but didn't get his hopes up until the logger sent another text with a photo of Bertie.

With Bertie missing for 18 days — and 11 days without a sighting — Carr had begun to fear the worst until her phone chimed with the logger's lead. Other sightings from the same area came in, confirming Carr's suspicion that Bertie had never left Jacoby Creek. "Dogs, when they're lost, will make a home base and hunker down during the day, then forage for food at night," she said.

The chase began in earnest, taking her deep into the woods off Quarry Road to find the logging site, where she met with the loggers and emptied a bag of dog food on the ground. Nickell joined her and they searched the woods for hours. Finally, they heard whimpering. "We knew we were close," she said.

Then a shout went up from the logging site: Bertie was at the pile of food and one of the loggers had managed to get a rope around him.

The dog was filthy, covered in ticks and poison oak, and cut by blackberry vines. He'd lost hair from his face and hindquarters. After 18 days on the run, he'd also lost 25 pounds, more than a third of his body weight. His ribs jutted out like the tines of a fork but he was alive.

McDonald was in his car when the text came from Carr. "It just said, 'WE GOT HIM.' ... I pretty much collapsed," he said.

The couple hadn't been home 24 hours before they were back on the road driving through the night in order to reach Sunny Brae Animal Hospital before it opened at 7 a.m. The Sunny Brae vets had treated Bertie with IV fluids and antibiotics and cleaned his wounds.

"He was so frail," Geary said. "When he saw us, it was like he couldn't believe it." Bertie spent another day and night at the vet's, while his owners met with the loggers to thank them and deliver the reward, which the crew shared.

"So many people came together to help a dog," he said, noting he and Geary are grateful to the HPC team. "It's incredible the way everyone stepped up to help," Geary added. "We'll never find a way to repay people for their generosity."

But Carr says that debt has already been paid.

"I think this happened at a perfect time for this community," she said. "People were down. Things were pretty bleak. It gave them something to hope for, something to be excited about. Bertie's story brought this community together."

Among the more than 1,200 comments on Bertie's "found" post, one reads, "This was the news I needed to hear today." Even Chere, a veteran of thousands of Paws Cause reunions, said that when she got the news, she leaped out of her chair, knocking it over.

"Don't ever give up hope," she said. "Not ever."

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

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