Toby Brooks, his fiancee and their three young daughters waited outside Clayton’s police station Tuesday, in anticipation of seeing their 16-year-old dog for the first time in more than a month.
Coco, a frail white miniature poodle, went missing from her home in Concord, just north of Charlotte, on July 20. She turned up 770 miles away in a small town in central Massachusetts nearly three weeks later.
She was reunited with her family in Clayton, where animal control officer Angie Lee was among those responsible for bringing Coco back to North Carolina. It was Lee who emerged from the police department’s doors with Coco in her arms, freshly trimmed, wearing a white dress with pink and purple bows, wrapped in a blanket.
Lee handed Coco over to Brooks. He scratched her stomach with his finger, and she licked his hand. Then he placed Coco on the ground so his three young daughters – ages 8, 3, and 2 – could play with her.
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“I’m just excited to see her again,” Brooks said. “I was thinking she was gone.”
Coco, who is now blind and deaf, was an eight-week-old puppy when Brooks got her for his ninth birthday. She has been with him since.
Brooks said he was at work when Coco escaped from the family’s fenced backyard. He said he thinks his children accidentally left the gate open when they let her and the family’s other two dogs out of the house.
Brooks said he searched for Coco night and day and began to lose hope.
“I assumed somebody had picked her up because she was so little,” he said. “But I didn’t think she’d get that far. It wasn’t fun to think that she was gone and there was nothing I could do about it. To have her for so long and know that she’s gone – it wasn’t really a good feeling.”
Coco was found Aug. 9 in the small, central Massachusetts town of Belchertown, where the animal control office received a tip about a stray poodle on the road without an ID tag.
Animal control officer Anna Kuralt-Fenton said that after she posted a picture of Coco to the department’s Facebook page, someone called and said that a neighbor had spotted the lost dog in Concord 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.
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. Lee offered to help, even though the dog wasn’t from Clayton.
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. One of the emails was from Brooks.
Kuralt-Fenton then submitted a request to a national nonprofit, 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. A pilot in Massachusetts agreed to fly Coco as far as Allentown, Penn., where another couple flew her to Smithfield on Sunday.
Lee took care of the dog, including a trip to the groomer Tuesday morning, before the reunion with Brooks and his family.
“To know that she’s going home tonight with her family, with the people that love her and with the people she loves, is the best feeling ever,” Lee said.
Lee knelt down beside Brooks’ step-daughter, Lacie Hill, 8, who was holding Coco, and asked her to promise to take care of her and love her forever.
Lacie nodded and said she would. As Lacie held her in her arms, Coco closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.