By LISA BROADT
CHESAPEAKE CITY, Md. - Walking past the rows of forgotten animals at the Cecil County SPCA, Debby Stevens had a sickening thought: What if, after weeks of worry and more than a thousand miles of travel, the dog being housed here was not, in fact, her Brody?
Inside the indicated cage, a black Labrador lay prostrate on the concrete floor.
"Brody?" Stevens asked.
The dog leapt up; Stevens began to cry.
"There was no doubt about it," recalled the SPCA staff member who took Stevens through the kennel. "That dog just came alive."
(asterisk) (asterisk) (asterisk)
Two weeks earlier, Debby Stevens awoke in her Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., home and found that Brody, her family's 9-year-old lab, had not returned home. She knew something was wrong.
Friendly and playful with big brown eyes that expected nothing but hoped for everything, Brody was a key member of the Stevens family. Every so often the lab would nuzzle through the screened-in porch and spend the afternoon exploring, but he always returned home by nightfall, Stevens said.
Except this time.
Sean Stevens, Debby's 25-year-old son, plastered the neighborhood with "Missing" flyers that afternoon, and the family waited and hoped.
"We heard nothing at all on Thursday," Stevens recalled. "But on Friday a woman called. She said: `I know where your lab is.'"
The anonymous caller reported that a family relative had recently visited Florida with her three little boys. While playing outside, the kids had befriended the outgoing Brody. When the children asked their mother if they could keep the dog, she agreed they could. They loaded Brody in the car and headed back to New York, the caller said.
Stevens was shocked, but as the caller continued, the story grew even stranger.
While driving through Cecil County, the woman was pulled over by police and arrested for driving under the influence, the caller said. Her three human passengers were sent to foster care homes for the night, and the Labrador traveling with her was sent to the local pound.
The next morning, according to the caller, the woman was released from jail. The sequence of events following her release were not exactly clear, but at 12:35 a.m., the 37-year-old mother was struck and killed by an Amtrak train in Havre de Grace.
Stevens might want to try calling some of the local animal shelters, the caller suggested before hanging up.
"I was so grateful for her call, but I just thought: Oh, my God. This is the craziest thing _ how does this happen?" Stevens said. "How did they even get so far in a day and a half?"
Sean and his younger brothers, Trevor, 23, and Colin, 20, began calling Maryland animal shelters. They called 15 or 16 before getting a lead at the Cecil County SPCA where a staff member confirmed that a dog matching Brody's description had been brought in recently by police. The family was thrilled.
Stevens, a special education teacher, worried that she would not have time to go up to Maryland to retrieve Brody. But, on the suggestion of a friend, she contacted a New England animal rescue group, which in turn, put her in touch with Martha's Mutt Movers.
Martha Chandler, the director of the group, coordinates the Mutt Movers to help transport dogs from shelters to rescues.
"I guess you could compare me to a dispatcher at Roadway," Chandler explained. "People contact me... and I put together a run and send it out to volunteers drivers along the route.
"I normally move dogs for rescues that are pulling from shelters or pounds in the areas where overpopulation is great and euthanasia rates are high."
While Brody's case was different from most that Chandler handles, the lab's story _ an elderly dog kidnapped from his owners _ stuck a chord with her. So she agreed to take him on.
Stevens called the Cecil County SPCA on Monday to tell them that someone from Chandler's group would be by soon to retrieve Brody.
Not possible, the folks at the SPCA told her. Stevens herself must positively identify and pick up Brody; they could not release the dog to anyone but the owner.
Although Team Brody understood the SPCA's decision, they were unsure of their next move.
"Brody had enough going on _ if he was truly Brody _ that he didn't need to be pulled by someone that wasn't truly his family," Chandler later said.
"The whole next week we were trying to decide what to do. Finally, I decided to fly up there," Stevens said.