Battered and starving, Town of Grafton family’s beloved dog is found after search aided by volunteers from areas near and far, alert cops
It’s a wonder that a 38-pound, 11-year-old Walker coonhound named Sugar survived coyote attacks and sub-zero temperatures after disappearing from her Town of Grafton home late last month and living in the wild for seven days and eight nights.
But what’s truly amazing, her owner Brandon Heffner said, are the scores of volunteers — friends and strangers alike, some from as far away as Madison and Green Bay — who combed the countryside during the week-long search for the Heffner family’s retired hunting dog and beloved pet.
“Sure, we had family and friends looking, and we certainly appreciated that, but it was unbelievable the number of other people, even complete strangers, who offered to do whatever they could to help,” Heffner said. “There was even a retired couple from Green Bay who drove down and with their maps started searching.”
Equally amazing, he said, was the work of an Ozaukee County sheriff’s deputy, Saukville police officer and Port Washington Police Department records clerk who led Heffner to a wooded area near the north side of Port Washington where he found a starving and severely dehydrated Sugar living in a woodpile.
“You hear a lot of bad things about people and about cops these days, but these officers, who have plenty of important things to do, took the time to help find a missing animal,” he said. “That’s pretty incredible.”
The search for Sugar, which fixated dog lovers throughout the state who followed the saga on Facebook and websites dedicated to lost pets, began Friday afternoon, Jan. 27, after Heffner came home from work and let his dogs outside.
“Twenty minutes later I called for them, and two of the three came running in,” he said. “Sugar was nowhere to be found.”
It was unlike Sugar, a highly trained and loyal dog, to wander off, Heffner said.
“In all 11 years of her life, she’s never left the yard on her own,” he said.
The Heffners live on the south end of the Town of Grafton just west of Highway 32 next to the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, which is the first place Heffner searched. He didn’t return home until 2 a.m. Saturday morning.
“As day turned into night and hours turned into days, I just kept expanding the search,” he said.
Heffner was joined by his wife Christy, sons Hawk, 15, and Brock, 14, sister, parents and other relatives and friends. Soon others joined the effort, including strangers who felt compelled to do what they could.
The family developed a routine. Heffner and others searched acres of fields, woods and the Ulao Creek Watershed. His sons helped as soon as they got home from school.
Meanwhile, Heffner’s mother worked the phones, calling animal shelters and law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
Volunteers distributed 700 fliers, Heffner said, and not just in Ozaukee County.
“I drove to Fond du Lac to put some fliers up at a shelter only to get there and see that someone had beat me to it,” he said.
Throughout the search, Heffner was haunted by the mystery of what happened to a dog that had never strayed before.
“The worst part was not knowing,” he said. “I became convinced that someone stole her.”
He offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to Sugar’s whereabouts, then increased it to $2,000.
“That’s a lot of money, and my hope was that it was enough to get someone to snitch on whomever took her,” Heffner said.
Then he had to deal with people who told him what he didn’t want to hear and refused to believe — Sugar had gone off to die or gotten lost and succumbed to the elements.
“I just knew that wasn’t the case,” Heffner said. “In all those years hunting for me, Sugar never quit on me and I wasn’t about to quit on her.”
The break Heffner was hoping for came at about 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, when, he said, Ozaukee County sheriff’s deputy Joe Milezarek saw a dog run across Highway LL near the north side of Port Washington.
The deputy apparently had to respond to another call, but before doing so radioed a description — a white dog with black spots and a bright yellow collar — to a dispatcher.
That report was heard by Saukville police officer Emily Neese, who had been following the search on Facebook, Heffner said. Neese contacted Heffner, who with his wife jumped in his truck and raced to Port Washington.
“Meanwhile my phone is just blowing up with calls,” he said.
It turns out that Shelly Heaslip, a records clerk for the Port Washington Police Department, also heard Milezarek’s radio transmission and, aware of the search for Sugar, called Heffner’s sister Honor, who owns Pet Grooming by Honor, where Heaslip takes her dog, Heffner said.
With his sister and others desperately trying to get a hold of him, Heffner set off to search a wooded area south of Highway LL near the northwest side of Port Washington. Not long after that, he spotted Sugar, who ran.
“I chased her like she was a million dollar bill blowing in the wind,” he said.
Heffner caught up to the dog near a woodpile where she had apparently been living.
“She was cut up pretty bad from coyotes and had blood all over her,” he said. “There was also a lot of blood and fur on the woodpile.
“She was really thin and very dehydrated, but she was alive.
“I’m not sure what happened. Maybe she went outside, had a little bit of a senior moment, got spooked and couldn’t find her way home.”
Heffner said he believes Sugar ran when she saw him because she was injured, starving and dehydrated.
With Sugar recovering at home, living “the good life of a retired hunting dog,” he said, there was one loose end to tie up — the reward money.
Milezarek, Neese and Heaslip couldn’t accept the reward, but Heffner said he felt obligated to donate it to a worthy cause, especially after the outpouring of support he and his family received.
At the suggestion of Neese, Heffner said, he donated the money to 36-year-old Erik Kopp, the father of two young girls who just before becoming a Saukville firefighter last year was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer that will require him to undergo a costly liver transplant.
“If deputy Milezarek hadn’t given such a detailed description and Emily and Shelly hadn’t heard it, I don’t think we would have ever found Sugar,” Heffner said. “It just amazes me all the people who helped us.”
AN 11-YEAR-OLD Walker coonhound named Sugar is back home with the Heffner family — Brandon, his wife Christy and sons Hawk and Brock — after wandering away from her Town of Grafton home and living in the wild for a week. Photo by Sam Arendt