BELLE GLADE, FL — After going missing near the Everglades April 20, a newly adopted dog was found alive Thursday after roaming the swampy area alone for nine days.
Theo, a brown-and-white mixed-breed dog, went missing after a transport van bringing him to his new family in Alpha, New Jersey crashed on U.S. 27 between Miami and Belle Glade.
The N.J. family found the abandoned pup in Homestead April 14 while vacationing there.
Ashley Tirado, who adopted Theo, said he was wandering around alone, walking along a road next to a farm, not far from their Airbnb rental.
“I was like we have to stop. We’re not just going to leave that guy there,” she said.
To her surprise, he didn’t hesitate to approach her family or their car. He “jumped right in,” Tirado said.
They found him about 8 p.m. and kept him overnight until area animal shelters opened the next morning. Though their Airbnb listing was described as a dog-friendly space, they checked with their host first and got the green light to bring him into their rental.
“We had him overnight and a few hours the next day. He stayed in my lap and gave me kisses and hugs and that was it,” she said. “It sealed the deal. I was like, ‘Yup, he needs to come home with us.'”
Ashley Tirado and Theo, who she adopted after finding him abandoned on the side of the road while vacationing in South Florida. (Ashley Tirado)
When they brought him to the animal shelter the next day, they put a Good Samaritan’s hold on him. He had five days to undergo medical evaluations and for an owner — if he had one — to claim him. By putting him on a Good Samaritan hold, Tirado and her family had first dibs on adopting him once the legal hold had expired.
As they dropped him off at the shelter, they were forced to pick a name, she said. Her family decided on Drax, a character from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“He’s a big, scary guy,” Tirado said. “In the car afterwards, I realized he wasn’t a Drax. He’s too sweet and cuddly. My 5-year-old brother said, ‘Theodore’ and it just clicked. Now, he’s Theo.”
They returned to New Jersey April 17, three days before the hold was up. Because there was a mandated quarantine in their home state before they could return to work and other activities, they needed to return by a certain date.
Still, her gut told her that Theo would be coming home to them. She’d search missing pet groups on Facebook and reached out to animal rescues in the area to see if anybody knew of him. She learned that several rescuers had seen him wandering in the area but had been unable to catch him.
Another rescuer recognized Theo as a dog who had been mistreated in a foster situation. He had a stick shoved in his eye, and he was kicked in the jaw and had a chipped tooth, Tirado said. Then, he was dumped on the side of the road in Homestead.
“We kind of knew that he wasn’t going to be claimed,” she said. “We knew he would be ours after the hold was up.”
They found a transport company to bring him to New Jersey when the hold was lifted April 20.
Not long after leaving the animal shelter, the van flipped on its side and Theo, who wasn’t in a crate, Tirado said.
She hasn’t named the company she hired for the trek but said she’s “completely in awe at the irresponsibility of the woman driving.”
She was heartbroken when she heard that Theo was lost in the Everglades. Rather than give up though, she reached out to some of those rescue organizations she had connected with on Facebook when trying to learn if he had a home.
“I told them about the situation. They posted it on Facebook and within a day, (a post about Theo) had 7,000 shares,” Tirado said.
They created a Facebook page to follow the search for Theo and a core group of about 10 women – animal rescuers and lovers – emerged to help.
The animal rescue organizations involved with Theo’s eventual rescue were Paw Patrol Animal Rescue & Sanctuary, Triple T Pet Finders of SWFL and MisFit ResQ of WPBFL.
“It was really a process. These women were my saving grace,” Tirado said. “There were times that I thought about how he could have been dead by now. He could have been attacked or eaten, or maybe he was dehydrated and overheated, and these women were just my rocks, forcing me to stay positive. Most of the time, I was, but over the course of nine days, you can’t always be.”
Volunteers covered in meat juice and liquid smoke to emit a scent that might attract Theo “walked through the swamps, shining lights in alligators’ eyes,” she said. “One night, they even found a python. It was crazy in the best way possible. They were out there reeking of meat.”
Theo was lost not far from where an expert python hunter happened to live. Rescuers stopped by his home to ask if he’d seen the dog and he shared his knowledge about what to do if they came across a python.
“He explained to this sweet, old woman looking for my dog what to do in case of a python attack,” Tirado said. “You grab it by the neck and lay down on its body. Now I know what to do if I ever see a python.”
Eventually, they thankfully found Theo. A little hungry and worn out, but otherwise fine.