The longest four weeks of Michelle Medina’s life began Sept. 17.
That afternoon as schools were letting out, two of her dogs were letting themselves out of their yard in Sleepy Hollow.
Wakiya, a black 2-year-old boxer-Boston terrier mix, and Kels, a 3-year-old pit bull, pushed through a sagging gate in the backyard fence.
Medina’s mom, Jacki Baumeister, heard a noise and ran outside.
Michelle and her husband Micheal were driving back to Gillette from Colorado when they got the call: the two dogs had run away.
They weren’t too worried. The dogs had run away once before. That time, they ran straight to Conestoga Elementary School. Michelle called out to them and they came right back.
She thought they’d be at a neighbor’s fence, barking at other dogs.
They were not.
This time, Wakiya and Kels would be on the run for quite a while longer.
A desperate search
Michelle made a Facebook post asking people to be on the lookout for her two dogs. That evening, someone commented, saying the dogs had been spotted on Union Chapel Road two hours earlier. Michelle and Baumeister drove around, calling out their names.
The next day, someone spotted the dogs together at Caballo mine. But in the two days after that, only Wakiya was seen. Kels was nowhere to be seen.
That’s when Michelle got scared. The dogs were close and Kels would not have left Wakiya to fend for herself.
“They sleep together, they constantly follow each other everywhere,” she said.
She kept posting on Facebook pages and groups every day, asking for people to keep an eye out.
She’d had both dogs for about two years and Wakiya since she was a puppy. To Michelle, they were like her children.
“People were probably sick and tired of seeing my dogs on Facebook,” she said, but she had to keep trying.
Most of the comments were supportive and whenever someone made a suggestion, Michelle tried it.
She bought a megaphone. She hung chicken liver from cheese cloth. She put pieces of her clothing out in her front yard. None of it worked.
Almost every day, Michelle was out looking for her dogs with Baumeister. Her husband, Micheal Medina, helped whenever he could. Some days they could only search for a couple of hours. Other days, they started looking in the morning and didn’t stop until dark.
They asked farmers, hunters, anyone who passed by if they’d seen the dogs. They stood on the side of the road, peering through binoculars at Caballo mine.
Searching for two dogs in the vast expanse of southern Campbell County is a tall order for just three people. Michelle estimates she put more than 1,300 miles on her car during the search.
Fortunately, they weren’t alone.
On the lookout
Michelle was amazed at how the community responded. People whom she’d never met were commenting words of encouragement, telling her to not give up hope. They were there to cry with her or talk on the phone if she needed it.
And many people went a step further and searched for the dogs themselves. Jen Baxter was out looking nearly every day, Michelle said. And Linda and Mike Eckenrod drove from Wright every day to search for the dogs. They refused Michelle’s offers to pay for gas money.
Lauri Nantt went out on horseback. Others drove four-wheelers through fields.
Chris Bonter flew his small plane over the area between Sleepy Hollow and Bishop Road. John Balk searched by drone.
Jon Stauffacher, a supervisor at Caballo mine, walked for miles and searched the abandoned houses on the mine property. Even if Wakiya wasn’t alive, he wanted to bring her home.
“They were bringing it up in the safety meetings, letting everybody know there’s a dog somewhere out there,” Micheal said.
“There was so much hope from the community, so many people out there looking,” Baumeister said.
They used to live in a small, tight-knit community in South Dakota. Baumeister said she didn’t expect to see this type of “banding together” in a town the size of Gillette, especially over a couple of dogs.
“I’m in awe of that,” she said.
One dog found
Wakiya sightings popped up every other day or so. But several days had passed with no word of Kels. Michelle feared the worst.
Then the evening of Sept. 25, as Michelle was making supper, she got a call from the Eckenrods. Someone had spotted Kels in Antelope Valley. She showed up a the house of a friend of Michelle’s son.
By the time they got there, Kels was gone. They searched in darkness for two hours before calling it a night.
On Sept. 27, 10 days after the escape, Michelle got a text from Amanda Hunt. It was a picture of Kels. Hunt said Kels had followed her dogs into her house in Antelope Valley.
Michelle broke down crying.
“It was such a relief, because I’d given up. I thought she was dead,” she said.
When Michelle pulled up, Kels was staring at her.
“As soon as I got out of the car and got close, she knew who I was,” Michelle said. “She ran and jumped on me.”
The reunion was strange, she said. Although overjoyed that she’d been reunited with Kels, it felt incomplete because Wakiya was still out there. And of the two dogs, Wakiya was the one Michelle thought wouldn’t be able to survive on her own.
“Kels is a pit bull. Coyotes aren’t going to mess with her,” Michelle said. “But Wakiya’s so tiny.”
She didn’t like the small boxer’s chances in the wild, especially against rattlesnakes, badgers and other predators.
One day before Kels was found, someone saw Wakiya on Bishop Road near the mine. Four days later on Sept. 30, a boxer was seen eating an antelope off of Haight Road 16 miles south of Sleepy Hollow. Four people went out looking, but couldn’t find her.
The following day, a friend of Michelle’s brother thought he saw Wakiya near the intersection of Clarkelen and Savageton roads, 40 miles south of Sleepy Hollow. It wasn’t a positive ID, “but it was a lead,” she said.
Even though it was so far away, “I had to go look,” Michelle said.
Someone who lived in the Haight Road area has a dog who looks a lot like Wakiya and was wondering why his dog was showing up all over his Facebook feed.
The only difference between his dog and Wakiya, Michelle said, was that his dog didn’t have white paws like Wakiya.
So they stopped searching along Haight Road.
With each day that went by without a Wakiya sighting, Michelle became more worried that the boxer was gone for good.
Whenever they drove out and saw birds of prey diving to the ground, they wondered if the birds were feasting on Wakiya’s corpse.
“That was a rough day. I cried the whole time I was out there,” Michelle said. “Every time I was by myself I just bawled.”
At this point, she would have been OK with finding her dog dead, because then “at least I would know and I’d have closure.”
She wondered if Wakiya was out there somewhere thinking that she’d been abandoned.
“I felt like I was failing her,” Michelle said. “I was drained.”
Ten more days went by without a sighting. But Michelle kept looking, even in her dreams. At night, Micheal could hear her muttering “Bishop Road” and “Clarkelen” in her sleep.
Lost without them
When the dogs were gone, Michelle realized she’d taken them for granted. The house was way too quiet without them.
She missed having the dogs lay on her feet at night. She missed how they begged to go outside whenever she got up out of her chair, how they’d rush to the back door “like a stampede of elephants.”
Michelle wanted her dogs back, but at the same time Micheal wanted his wife back. Baumeister wanted her daughter back.
“Part of me was gone when they were gone. I wasn’t me,” she said.
She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t talk without crying. She couldn’t sit at home knowing her dogs were out there.
She couldn’t even empty her pool without crying at the thought of Wakiya and how she would jump at running water any chance she got.
“I was lost without them,” she said.
Found, part 2
It was Oct. 13, 26 days since Wakiya ran away. No one had seen her for nearly two weeks.
Michelle was ready to give up.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “At that point, either somebody had her or she was dead.”
Baumeister remembers saying a prayer that morning. “I said, ‘God, if today’s the day that you want us to find her, put her beside the road so we can see her.’”
She and her daughter were in Walmart when they decided to look for Wakiya one more time. They drove along Four Corners and Bishop roads. After no sign of the dog, Michelle was ready to go home.
But Jacki still had hope.
“My mom’s like, ‘Is Haight Road very far from here? Let’s go look there. I have a feeling,’” Michelle said.
They drove south on Highway 59 and turned onto Haight Road, where they hadn’t looked for the past several days. As Michelle surveyed the farmhouses, Jacki shouted, “Look!”
Michelle slammed on her brakes.
It was Wakiya.
“There she is by the fence, just staring at us,” Michelle said. “It’s like she was there waiting for us, like she knew we were coming.”
Michelle got out of the car, climbed the fence and began walking toward Wakiya. She got within five to 10 feet of the dog. She called out her name. And Wakiya started running.
In the opposite direction.
In that moment, fear invaded Michelle’s mind: What if Wakiya had been gone for so long that she forgot her owner?
A few weeks earlier, Michelle had a bad experience with a landowner who kicked her off his property when she was looking for her dogs. And as a shy person by nature, she dreaded knocking on strangers’ doors.
But she pushed all of that aside.
“If he’s got my dog, I’m going to go get her,” she said.
Michelle knocked on the farmhouse door and Terry Olstad answered. Michelle showed him a flyer of Wakiya, and he told her that the boxer had been hanging around his property for the last eight to 10 days, eating rabbits and hunting prairie dogs.
Olstad didn’t have Facebook, so he had no idea that this was the dog that had been plastered all over social media.
“I hugged him three or four times. I was crying,” Michelle said.
Olstad gave them permission to set up a trap on his property. Michelle refused to leave until she saw Wakiya come back to the farmhouse. She waited several hours, and just as it was getting dark, saw Wakiya make her way back.
Baumeister and Michelle went home and hoped for the best.
“It was still frustrating because we couldn’t get to her, but we knew she was alive, we knew she was safe,” Baumeister said.
For the first time in weeks, Michelle slept peacefully. Baumeister said a burden had been lifted off of her daughter’s shoulders.
The next morning, Wakiya wasn’t in the trap. Michelle feared that she’d scared Wakiya off completely and that she was never coming back. Her mom told her to just give it some time.
They were at Humphrey’s for lunch when Michelle got the call from Olstad. Wakiya was in the trap.
“Right as our food was showing up to the table,” Micheal said. “She’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to eat super fast, we’ve got to go.’”
He reminded her that Wakiya wasn’t going anywhere, that they could take their time with their food. Michelle only ate a quarter of her sandwich, she was so excited.
She usually gets on her husband for speeding, but on this day, she wanted him to drive faster. She couldn’t wait.
Wakiya did her trademark butt wiggle, a sign of excitement, when she saw Michelle. She remembered her owner.
“It was amazing,” Michelle said. “She knew who I was.”
They took the dog to the vet, who warned them that she might need some time adjusting back to her regular life.
She did not.
“Once she got in the house, she knew she was home,” Baumeister said. “It was like she hadn’t even been gone.”
But there was a noticeable difference in her daughter. Michelle was smiling again.
“It was like, she’s home,” Baumeister said.
Her dogs were back, and so was she.