Homeward Bound: Kokomo Humane Society returning Florida dog that disappeared in 2019

·5 min read

Aug. 4—Ines Figueroa was heading out for a family get-together on Christmas Day in 2019 when she decided to quickly let out her two pit-bull mixes, Grace and Mia, before leaving.

It was a warm day in Tampa, Florida, where the 61-year-old has lived with her husband for over two decades, and after about 5 minutes, Figueroa went to the backyard and called for the two dogs to come back in.

"Here comes Mia with her head lowered," she said. "I'm like, 'Ah, something's wrong here. Where's Grace?'"

That's a question Figueroa would ask for the next two-and-a-half years.

When Grace didn't come back in that day, they searched the backyard, but she was nowhere to be found. Assuming she had jumped the fence, Figueroa and her husband drove around the neighborhood for hours looking for their dog, but no one had seen hide nor hair of her.

Just like that, in the blink of an eye, Grace was gone.

"Since then, we prayed and prayed and prayed," Figueroa said. "And all I was thinking is, 'Please God, whoever has her, don't mistreat her. She's a good girl. Don't mistreat her.'"

It was a devastating blow to the couple, who had raised the 7-year-old pit bull since she was a weeks-old puppy. Figueroa said they considered Grace to be one of their children.

But as the months and years dragged on, hope faded that they'd ever see their beloved dog again.

Until July 15.

Figueroa was going through junk email when she saw a message from 24Petwatch, which operates the largest lost pet database and microchip registry in North America.

Figueroa said she was about to delete it when she remembered she had registered Grace on the website after she was microchipped as a puppy. She opened the email, and there it was: someone had scanned Grace's chip.

That someone was Marissa Shoffner, the dog behavior and medical programming specialist at the Kokomo Humane Society, located over 1,000 miles away from Tampa.

Shoffner said on July 15, animal control officers brought in a stray pit-bull mix after someone reported the dog wandering around on North Mulberry Street.

Shoffner saw that the animal had been microchipped, so they scanned it and reported the dog missing on 24Petwatch.

The next day, the phone rang. A man at the animal shelter picked up and heard a woman saying, "You have my dog! You have Grace! You have my baby!"

The woman, of course, was Figueroa, who asked the man where she was calling. He told her it was the Kokomo Humane Society in Indiana. He asked her where she was from. Tampa, Florida, Figueroa said.

Everyone was dumbfounded.

"It's so mind blowing how a dog can manage to make it all the way up here from Florida," Shoffner said.

"How the hell did Grace get to Indiana?" Figueroa added. "How?"

But the real question at hand was how could they get Grace back home after nearly 3 years?

Figueroa said her husband recently had eye surgery and was recuperating, so there was no chance they could travel to Kokomo to pick her up. That's when Shoffner told her not to worry. The humane society would take care of it.

Now, for the last two weeks, Shoffner has been working closely with The Rescue Railroad, which is a network of volunteers who transport animals back to their owners or to receive medical treatment.

A plan and route is in place for volunteers to drive Grace over 1,000 miles back home, and she leaves Saturday on her journey.

Figueroa said it's tough to express how much it means that strangers would go so far out of their way to return her pit bull. She said she's keeping her fingers crossed that everything goes well and she'll see Grace soon.

"Dealing with my husband's health issues and knowing about our baby, it's been a roller coaster around here," Figueroa said. "But we are excited. We can't wait to see her. We can't wait to have her here home again."

But the question remains: How did Grace end up in Kokomo? Figueroa and Shoffner said with no one to fill in the gaps, her 1,000-mile journey will remain a mystery.

Figueroa said she's just happy that Grace seems healthy, even though she's lost some weight since she went missing and likely had some puppies at some point.

But most of all, she's happy that after years of wondering if they'd ever see their dog again, they now have an answer.

"I always had my faith that Grace was gonna jump back into the backyard one day with her head low and try to say, 'Mommy, I'm sorry I ran away. I'm here, I'm here.' There's been nothing for years, but now she's coming home."

Shoffner said she's also glad that everything worked out in the end and the humane society could play a role in reuniting the family to their pet.

But none of that would have been possible without the microchip or the volunteers willing to drive Grace home. Shoffner said she figured it would take months to organize the trip, but thanks to The Rescue Railroad, it's happening Saturday.

"I thought, 'Oh, it's a long shot. We might not be able to get her back there,'" she said. "But it was within 24 hours that we had transport figured out, and I can't thank our contacts enough for that. It's pretty incredible."

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.