When David and Kathy Van Allen’s small single-engine plane finally landed in Johnston County’s airport Sunday morning, tears started to roll down Angela Lee’s face.
Lee lifted her dark sunglasses to wipe her eyes. She had been waiting a week for a passenger on that aircraft to arrive.
When the door to the plane opened, the Van Allens brought out Coco, a frail 16-year-old white miniature poodle, who had been lost from her home in Concord for nearly a month.
Lee, an animal control officer in Clayton, was among those responsible for bringing the dog back to North Carolina after it was found in Massachusetts.
“I can’t believe I’m crying,” Lee said, looking out at the plane with a smile on her face. “This isn’t even my dog.”
Coco’s owners told Lee that they let her outside to pee on the lawn and that when they looked away for a second she was gone. Coco, who is blind and deaf, didn’t have a tag on her collar or a microchip.
They searched around town for her but couldn’t find her.
Coco was spotted 770 miles away on Aug. 9, in the small, central Massachusetts town of Belchertown, after the animal control office there received a tip about a stray poodle on the road.
Anna Kuralt-Fenton, an animal control officer in Belchertown, said she posted a picture of the dog to department’s Facebook page. Someone called and said that a neighbor had spotted the lost dog in North Carolina, picked it up and brought it to Massachusetts. The caller told Kuralt-Fenton that the neighbor realized she couldn’t care for the dog and left her on the street.
“The neighbor wouldn’t tell me the person’s name or where she lived, so I couldn’t do anything for basically stealing and abandoning her,” Kuralt-Fenton said.
Kuralt-Fenton got Coco cleaned up and several people expressed interest in adopting her, but Kuralt-Fenton wanted to see if she could locate the owners in North Carolina. On a Facebook page used by animal control officers, she asked if someone in North Carolina could help her.
Though the dog wasn’t from Clayton, Lee said yes, she would help.
“Every one of us deserves to be with the ones we love,” Lee said. “She needs to be home. And if it’s a week, if it’s a month, if it’s six months – however much time this dog has on this earth, it needs to be with the people she loves.”
Lee posted a picture of the dog on lost-dog sites in and around Concord and began to get a flood of emails from people who had lost their poodles – some as long as seven years ago.
One of those emails was from Toby Brooks, Coco’s owner. Veterinarian records confirmed the missing dog was Coco.
Kuralt-Fenton then submitted a request to a national non-profit, Pilots N Paws Pets and Rescue Service, a group of volunteers, pilots and plane owners around the country who rescue, shelter or foster animals and fly them where they need to go.
Through discussion boards, volunteers exchange information on how to get an animal from one state to another. The pilots use their own money to pay for the flights and fuel for the trips, some of which cost as much as $2,000.
A pilot in Massachusetts agreed to fly Coco as far as Allentown, Penn., where the Van Allens live. She spent Saturday night with the Van Allens, then boarded the couple’s plane for the trip to Smithfield.
“We want to help in anyway we can, and in this particular case, that is how we helped,” said David Van Allen, who has volunteered with the organization for about four years.
Lee said it’s not too often that lost dogs get reunited with their owners.
“I pick up a lot of dogs that are never re-claimed,” Lee said. “Sometimes I think that people either don’t care enough about them to look, or maybe it’s that they know they are going to have to pay money to get them back or they are afraid they are going to get a ticket because their animal was running at-large. I don’t know.”
This was Lee’s first rescue across state lines. She will foster the dog until Tuesday, when Coco’s owners come to pick her up in Clayton. She said she wanted to see the reunion with her own eyes.
Lee walked over to the plane and put out her arms to hold Coco.
“Hi, sweetie,” Lee said, cradling her close to her. She took a look at the poodle and hugged her again before putting her down in the grass so the dog could pee.
With cameras around, a new purple colar with pink polka dots around her neck and a microchip in her body, Coco smelled the grass and circled around to find a spot.
“This is great,” Lee said. “This is the pay off. ...Everything just fell into place, and if it wasn’t for David and Kathy, Pilots N Paws, and a couple of animal control officers that did a little extra work, this wouldn’t have happened.
“This is the best feeling ever to know she’s going to be home. That’s where she needs to be,” Lee said.
Coco seemed to agree, tucking her head under Lee’s chin in a doggie hug.