Miracle before the storm
On Christmas night, while families were preparing for their return home, or maybe cleaning up from a day of festivities, one local woman was facing tragedy and heartache when her two and a half year old Yorkiepoo named Wonka ran off the porch and out back and into the woods. According to the dog's owner, Heather Long, Wonka has always been one to try and run off, but they can usually catch him fast. Last night was different.
It was 7:30 Christmas night. Ben Warren, Long's father, was washing dishes when Wonka took off out the door and ran up the hill and into the woods. The family's home already sets up on a hill and away from the road, so the woods beyond the home were very dark, with the sound of coyotes heard in the distance.
Long immediately rounded up some help from a neighbor, T.J. Poluka, and headed off into the woods with a Gator and a spotlight. The search for young Wonka began.
Long described riding around the rough terrain, and searching a span of over five miles while averting logs and creeks. But their search went cold at 11 p.m., with Long's father calling things off for the night.
On Wednesday, after a sleepless night, Long went to her job at Angel's Diner in downtown Owego, but couldn't concentrate. All she could think about was her missing Wonka, and the uncertainty of his whereabouts - whether he was safe or not. Her hope was running out that her beloved Wonka would be found. Long left work almost immediately, and then posted her plight on Facebook.
This post on Facebook would soon go viral, and bring Long the help she so desperately needed, as a storm was predicted to be moving into the area, bringing with it an unprecedented amount of snowfall.
Adam Weitsman was one of the first to learn of Long's plight, and soon shared information with his friends on Facebook. Weitsman, because of his love for animals and passion for helping others in the community, also offered a $500 reward to the person or persons that locate the dog. People responded, and soon the post was shared approximately 60 times, soliciting help and garnering prayers that the dog would be found.
Up on the hill on Lisle Road in Owego, help began to arrive at the family's home and an extensive search was soon under way.
Arriving in a van, wearing a hunting vest and hiking boots was John Spencer, of Riverow Book Shop in Owego. Spencer was one of close to a dozen that came up on the land to search for Wonka.
Long and her family were very worried as the search resumed, as they thought that Wonka couldn't survive with all of the coyotes known to be in the woods.
"I thought he was dead last night," Long said. Her mother, Teresa Warren, kept thinking that the dog would just return home.
But by noon on Wednesday, searchers grew weary, and some, including Long and her mother, began to lose hope. But Long's father wasn't going to give up.
"I needed to find something," Warren said, "even if it was just his harness."
When Warren got home from work Wednesday, he immediately went up in the woods. Because of the frigid temperatures and the small streams and creeks, searchers had some difficulty staying in the woods for extended periods. Many would leave to go dry off their socks and shoes, then return. But Warren didn't leave the woods, and he continued his search.
As a hunter, Warren was familiar with the woods and described following the creek to the property line, and then tracking back and forth, never stopping, never giving up hope.
Not too far from the border of the wooded area, where Wonka was seen running off into just 18 hours earlier, Warren spotted a Hemlock tree that appeared to have what he described as an "odd item" below it.
"It looked like a piece of bark off the bottom of the tree," Warren said.
But as he got closer, what he found was a frightened, cold and hungry Wonka, lying curled up on the ground below the tree. Warren immediately picked up Wonka, who was shaking, and put him inside of his jacket to get him warm. He then took him down to the house.
An elated Long and her family were nearby when Wonka was found, and he was soon greeted inside the home to some much-needed food.
"He ate all the food, and then belched like a human being," said Long's mom, who then gave Wonka a warm bath.
Long's father said that the coyotes should have gotten him, but they were probably staying away because of the movement and activity in the woods during the search.
Sitting in the family's home, Long, who had feared she would never see her dog alive again, was filled with heartfelt gratitude.
"This is the best day of my life," said Long as she held Wonka on her lap, stroking his fur and giving him an occasional hug.
And after the entire ordeal, which had the whole community watching and praying, Long said she was most grateful for all who sent prayers, voiced their concerns, and offered assistance with the search. Long especially thanked Adam Weitsman for helping to get the word out to various rescue groups and individuals through Facebook.
"He's home," Long said, "and it's nothing short of a miracle."