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A newly reunited Donna Kennedy and Chica, along with family friend Katie Garrow, 8, meet some of the many local volunteer searchers.
Chica heads home, snuggled against her big sister Katy Briedis.
BY EDIE GROSS
Chica surely didn't mean to cause such a ruckus.
The 7-pound Chihuahua was traveling home to upstate New York from a vacation in Myrtle Beach when her family stopped at Cracker Barrel in Massaponax for a dinner break on April 17.
Chica hopped out for a bathroom break, and it seems that everyone in the group thought someone else put her back in the car.
It wasn't until they'd driven five hours up the road to Harrisburg, Pa., that they realized Chica hadn't curled up under one of the seats or burrowed into a blanket like she usually did.
In fact, she wasn't in the car at all.
"Then we started to freak out," said Donna Kennedy, Chica's owner, who lives in Canton, N.Y., about 2 hours north of Syracuse. "I couldn't believe she wasn't in the car."
Chica, who is 8, wasn't wearing a collar either. She routinely hangs out under the car seats, so Kennedy had taken it off so it wouldn't catch on the springs.
In a panic, she called Cracker Barrel, but the manager hadn't seen Chica.
Kennedy went to bed heartbroken. The next morning, while the rest of the group headed home, she rented a car and drove back to Spotsylvania County.
She wandered around the Southpoint shopping center, calling Chica's name. She even walked up and down Interstate 95 after Spotsylvania Animal Control reported that someone had seen a match near Exit 126.
In the end, she made the 10-hour drive back home sans Chica.
She had to be back in time to teach math education classes at St. Lawrence University that Tuesday.
NO STONE UNTURNED
But Kennedy was far from giving up. On her way home, she called the Spotsylvania Sheriff's Office, state police and every veterinarian in the 540 area code and urged them to keep an eye out.
Once home, she posted a "Lost" ad in The Free Lance-Star and on Craigslist.
She started a Facebook page called "Find Chica."
She listed information about Chica on PetAmber Alert.com.
And using Google Maps and an online phone book, she called thousands of residents who lived within a few miles of the Cracker Barrel.
"My friends and I probably called around 2,000 phone numbers and left messages on machines," she said.
In the end, she marshaled legions of dog lovers who kept their eyes peeled throughout Spotsylvania for the tiny blond Chihuahua and kept in touch with Kennedy via phone and e-mail.
One was Terry Baxley Morton, who works in the transportation division of Stafford Public Works. Kennedy called her by accident, trying to reach someone with the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Baxley Morton, who often works with VDOT, offered to pass on Chica's information but also went a step further.
"I said I really understand. I feel terrible for you. I'm a total animal lover. If I can do anything else to help ," said Baxley Morton, who ultimately offered Kennedy a place to stay each time she returned to search. "By this time I had great karma with her. She was so sweet. We were like sisters by that time."
'JUST DON'T LOSE HOPE'
Every weekend, Kennedy would come back to Spotsylvania and follow up on Chica sightings.
Several people reported spotting her on Stoney Creek Drive. Others said they'd seen a dog matching her description near the Marquee Theaters. A 4-year-old told his mother he was certain he'd seen Chica near the Spotsylvania Walmart.
"I can't even tell you the number of people we were contacted by in that area that were helping me search. I have more faith in the human condition," said Kennedy. "When people are doing that for you, you just don't lose hope, because they wouldn't be doing it if all hope was lost."
When Debbie Hawkins' daughter found a Chihuahua the same weekend Chica went missing, Hawkins contacted Kennedy. Turns out the lost dog belonged to someone else, but Hawkins joined the search for Chica.
The owner of several dogs and cats, Hawkins said she couldn't imagine losing a pet in a strange place and having to go home without it.
"It was just hard for me to fathom that they had to leave town, every time knowing their dog was out there," said Hawkins, who owns a Spotsylvania bed-and-breakfast. "I would've been a mess. She never gave up."
On one trip, Kennedy brought her daughter, Katy Briedis, and one of her other dogs, Olive, to help. They left with sunburns, poison ivy and ticks--but no Chica.
She even hired a pet tracker, a woman whose golden retriever sniffed out Chica's trail--from the Cracker Barrel lot, across U.S. 1, through a wooded area behind Walmart and into the Breezewood neighborhood--but couldn't locate the dog.
'I HAVE YOUR DOG'
This past weekend, she traveled down with Katie Garrow, 8, a family friend who was on the Myrtle Beach vacation when Chica disappeared. The two hung a new round of posters.
On Sunday, they headed back to New York to pick up daughter Katy from college. Monday, the trio was driving toward Canton when Kennedy made a difficult call: She phoned Baxley Morton to ask how VDOT logs dead animals discovered on roadsides.
"I hated to even leave that message," she said. "I hadn't let my mind go there."
Five minutes later, she got a call from a Spotsylvania Animal Control officer. The woman asked her to describe her dog one more time. Blond, Kennedy said, erect ears, short hair that's darker on her back, a tiny bump near her rib cage.
"She goes, 'Donna, I have your dog,' and I started bawling," Kennedy said, "I had to pull over. My daughter's crying and Katie's crying."
'WHAT IS THAT NOISE?'
Earlier that same morning, David Connelly was installing an elevator in a hotel under construction not far from the Cracker Barrel.
"I start hearing this barking. And I'm like, 'What is that noise?'" said Connelly, who then spotted Chica in the elevator shaft about 4 feet beneath his platform. "I'm a dog lover myself so I was kind of worried--how'd you get in there?"
He hopped into the hole, which had been empty when he'd first arrived at the site, and managed to coax her over using a co-worker's lunch--of ham sandwiches.
"He was mad, but the dog had to eat," said Connelly, who lives in Richmond and works for Schindler Elevator Corp. "She tore 'em up."
He called Animal Control, and was told how long Chica had been on the lam.
"I'm glad I made someone else happy," he said. "That's not the type of dog you see wandering around so I knew someone was missing her."
A HAPPY ENDING
Kennedy, her daughter and Katie raced back to Spotsylvania for a tearful reunion at Baxley Morton's house in Lee's Hill. Baxley Morton had already picked Chica up from Animal Control, removed nearly 30 ticks from her tiny head and given her an Herbal Essences bath.
Chica settled onto a pillow for a nap, but perked up when Kennedy walked in.
"It was insane. Chica liked me, but I wasn't mom. She just worships Donna," said Baxley Morton. "She wouldn't stop licking her and wagging her tail. It was like a movie."
Said Kennedy: "Her eyes went wide and then all three of us laid around her. She went from one to the next to the next to the next, tail wagging so furiously. She licked us for probably an hour and a half. She just knew her family was there, and then she slept right against us. I just can't believe 23 days she was living on her own."
Chica had dropped to about 3 pounds, less than half her original weight, and her nails were worn down. But she didn't appear injured.
Hawkins hosted a breakfast Tuesday morning at her B&B for Kennedy, Chica and as many volunteer searchers as could make it.
"I thought she looked remarkably well considering all she's been through," said Amy Wolf of Spotsylvania, whose family searched high and low. "It all came out really nice. It was sad to see them leave, but nice to see them leave with their dog."
Kennedy visited briefly with Connelly at the job site to thank him. And then her group headed back to New York, with Chica cuddled up next to them.
"If only she could talk," Kennedy said.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428