NEW CASTLE, Pa. (AP) — For 25 days, Ashanti eluded her rescuers.
Over a 10-mile stretch, up and down Interstate 376 and into Union and Neshannock townships, a group of 15 determined animal lovers tracked the lost dog from Michigan. Each time they got close, her survival instincts kicked in and she went deeper into flight mode.
In the end, though, the 2-year-old Presa Canario was no match for Team Ashanti.
Ashanti is home today because of a group of rescuers who simply refused to give up during nearly a month of relentless searching though biting rain, whipping winds and a Polar Vortex.
The 100-pound dog disappeared from the Moravia (Route 168) exit off I-376 on Jan. 24 when her owner, Nick Gray, a semi truck driver from Jeddo, Michigan, pulled over to give her a bathroom break.
“She kept bumping me to let know she had to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I looked for a truck stop but couldn’t find one and I thought I’d just shoot off this exit and then jump back on the ramp.
“She jumped down and within seconds, pulled her collar right over her ears. She’s never even tried to do anything like that before. It happened so fast, before I could react. She started to run toward the road and I firmly told her ‘no.’ ”
The recognition of those words ultimately may have saved Ashanti’s life.
She returned to the shoulder, but then took off running.
“I was frantic,” Gray said. “I searched and called for her for an hour and a half, hoping she would show up, but eventually I had to leave to do my job. I didn’t want to go, but I knew she could by anywhere by then.”
Gray enlisted the help of his brother, Jason, who found the Lawrence County Animal Helpers and other lost pet pages on Facebook and pleaded for help. Immediately, a group of rescuers led by Leslie Mortimer contacted Jason.
And Team Ashanti was born.
Mortimer, who lives in Portersville, has been assembling teams to track lost animals for six years. Ashanti, whose breed is a member of the Mastiff family, tore at her heartstrings right away.
“My son is Nick’s age and he is a truck driver and has a Mastiff,” she said. “I knew we had to find his dog.
“The Gray family was phenomenal to work with. They did everything right. Jason networked like crazy and then he literally manned his phone 24/7. Our volunteers put up 350 flyers. And the community jumped in to help. Without those people who reported sightings, we wouldn’t have had a place to start.”
Mortimer started with five to six volunteers and before long, a team of 18 from Lawrence, Beaver, Butler and Allegheny counties was assembled. They formed a group chat that included Nick, Jason and their mom, Joan.
“We had boots on the ground pretty quickly, starting at the toll booth area where she was lost,” Mortimer said. “Lost dogs go into survival mode within 24 to 48 hours. They know to find shelter, lay low and conserve their energy. They also become very nocturnal and they rely very heavily on their sense of smell to find food to survive.”
But as the team visited nearby homes and put up flyers in the area, there was nothing.
“It was like she just vanished,” Gray said.
But Mortimer felt she hadn’t. As long as Ashanti stayed off the busy highways, she knew the team had a chance. She was part of a team that once rescued a boxer named Payne in Evans City after 72 days on the run, so she refused to panic when the days turned into weeks.
The Polar Vortex that hit in late-January, though, made Team Ashanti step up its efforts.
“I knew it was imperative with the weather that we needed to get a camera feed to find this lost dog,” Mortimer said.
First, a trap was placed near the toll plaza where Ashanti was last seen. Team members set up trail cameras through apps on their phones to get alerts when there was movement at the traps.
“We bought the smelliest, stinkiest tuna and cat food that we can find. We used a liquid smoke that puts an odor that lingers in the air to draw the lost pet toward the trap,” Mortimer said. “When Nick came back through the area, we told him to bring some of his clothing with his scent on it.”
It was during this time that Jason received a few crank calls where the anonymous callers said they had hit her and she was dead.
“There are always a few mean people out there,” Mortimer said. “But we knew she was alive.”
THE BREAK THEY NEEDED
Finally, the team got a break. Ashanti was seen near the toll booth where she was lost. Gray made the 4 1/2-hour drive back, and for two days, tracked his dog.
“I slept at the toll booth,” he said. “The toll manager came to talk to me because he got a report of a guy sleeping there. When I told him why I was there, he printed out his own flyers and hung them in the toll booth. He stayed in contact with me and let me know every time someone thought they saw her.”
But not only was the team up against a lost, frightened dog, it was also fighting temperatures that plunged as low as 30 degrees below zero in western Pennsylvania in late January and early February.
“Every time it got cold, she would disappear,” Gray said. “I heard from a dairy farmer in the area that she may have been taking shelter in one of his buildings during the bitter cold.
“I guess it was a miracle that she didn’t get hit, but I worked with her a lot with crossing parking lots and roads and would tell her that you have to look both ways and she actually would do that on her own. Somehow, she seemed to know to stay away from traffic.”
Holly Malacusky of Neshannock Township was a member of Team Ashanti. She saw a Facebook share by Mortimer and knew she wanted to help.
“I thought, what if that was me, what if that was my dog,” Malacusky said. “When we got the lead that a woman and her daughter had seen Ashanti at the toll booth, we went out there and got permission from the turnpike commission to look for her. Our spotters saw her but she ran.”
ON THE MOVE
Lynn Reiber, an owner of Edward’s Restaurant who had participated in two other rescues with Mortimer and team member Jill Geissler, also joined Team Ashanti.
Reiber put the trail camera app on her phone, but for several days after the original sightings, there was nothing. Finally, Ashanti was seen at Wal-Mart on Feb. 7, then at the New Castle School of Trades on Pulaski Road/Route 422 on Feb. 12.
“When we heard she was at the school of trades, we put a trap there,” Reiber said. “The first night, we got movement on the trail cam, but ended up with a cat in there.”
From there, Ashanti was seen sleeping on a porch on Pulaski Road, then she headed north, to the industrial park off Route 376 in Neshannock Township, not far from Reiber’s home.
“When we got a call about her sleeping at the industrial park, I raced over there,” Reiber said. “I couldn’t find her anywhere. But I left some food so we could keep her in that area.
“I didn’t sleep much, but I didn’t mind,” Reiber added. “Once I knew she was nearby, I kept waiting to hear the trail cam beep.”
Ashanti was spotted at Paul’s Beverage and Silgan Ipec in the industrial park early on the morning of Feb. 15.
“I got there as fast as I could every time we saw movement or heard of a sighting,” Reiber said. “I let six cats and a raccoon out of the traps.”
Again, Ashanti made a move, this time heading south on Route 18 through Neshannock Township.
She was spotted near Chuck Tanner’s Restaurant and Nick’s Auto Body on Wilmington Road, then near St. Camillus Church on Feb. 16. The team moved a trap behind El Canelo Restaurant and on Feb. 17, Reiber baited it with an Arby’s sandwich and some taco meat.
At 11:11 p.m. that night, Ashanti was seen on the trail cam behind El Canelo, inches from the trap.
“Of course we all wanted to go there right away, but we knew we couldn’t,” Reiber said. “She would have run. We knew we had to let her go in the trap on her own. It was so hard to wait.”
Finally, at 11:14 p.m., Ashanti went after the food inside the trap and the door closed as team members watching their trail cams exploded in celebration.
“I literally sat there and bawled when I saw her head in the trap,” Reiber said. “I’m sure everyone else did, too.”
Reiber, Malacusky and another volunteer, Becky Work, raced to the trap.
“It was raining and very cold out, but she sat and looked at us and let us touch her. She was scared but seemed relieved that it was over,” Malacusky said. “There were a lot of happy tears that night.”
Ashanti was left in the trap as she was transported to Malucusky’s home so there was no chance of her escaping during a transfer. She was showered with love, then spent the night in a heated garage, eating, drinking and sleeping on a soft dog bed.
Since Gray was on another out-of-state trip, Malacusky and Mortimer met Joan and Jason halfway in Sandusky, Ohio, for the transfer a day later.
Joan immediately took Ashanti to the vet, where she was determined to have lost close to 30 pounds from her 100-pound frame, but was otherwise healthy. Ashanti waited with Joan at her home in Fenton, Michigan, until Gray returned from his trip.
“She was so excited, she knocked me down when I came in the door,” Gray said with a laugh. “I told her I sure wish she could talk because what a story she would have to tell.
“The rescue team, how can I ever thank them? If she was going to get lost, it couldn’t have happened in a more wonderful place. These people literally gave up their lives for almost a month to help a man and a dog they didn’t even know.”
Mortimer said that no thanks is necessary.
“Our reward is seeing the dog back with its owner,” she said. “That’s all any of us want.”
Gray said he will take every precaution to keep Ashanti safe in the future. The rescue team sent harnesses, leashes split in two and a martingale collar home with Ashanti.
“I will keep her triple-harnessed from here on out,” Gray said. “I debated on whether a dog would fit my lifestyle since I’m on the road so much, but as soon as I saw her picture, I knew she was mine. She’s my dream dog. But my biggest fear when I started taking her with me was no matter how careful I was, that someday she would get away from me and I would lose her.
“I don’t go anywhere without her. We have a fish tank at home and when I go to get a new fish, she looks around and nudges the one she wants when she sees it. And of course that’s the one that we buy.”
“I’ve been emotional since I lost her and it still feels unreal that I got her back,” he added. “It’s because of some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life that this happened. I will never, ever be able to repay them.”