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ALACHUA ‒ It’s no secret that people love their pets, so much so that they think of them as family members. When a pet is sick or in distress, it can affect the entire family. Imagine the pain when a beloved pet is missing.

That is exactly what happened to a family traveling through Florida during the holidays. In mid-December, Cassandra Bennett and her two children took a long-awaited vacation cruise to the Bahamas. Traveling to Florida from their home in Virginia, they also brought their beloved Chow dog, Kahlua with them. Bennett's former husband, who lives in Alachua County, offered to watch the dog rather than hire a pet sitter in Virginia. The Bennetts believed Kahlua would be well taken care of and better off in a comfortable home setting rather than with a stranger in Virginia.

But Kahlua had other ideas. Missing her family, and also being in heat, she escaped twice while staying with Bennett’s former husband. He found her the first time, but the second time she disappeared just days before the family returned.

The Bennetts were devastated when they learned the day after Christmas that Kahlua was missing. With few options, they had to return to Virginia without her.

“What should have been a happy ending to our special trip turned into a very sad experience, walking into our house seemed empty without Kahlua,” Cassandra Bennett said. “My kids were especially heartbroken. Although we were unable to stay in Florida to look for her, I knew we couldn’t give up on her.” Bennett took to social media and community posts in the Alachua area to put up Kahlua's photo and see if anyone had seen her.

The response from the Alachua and High Springs communities was overwhelming. Volunteers put up posters and continued posting to Facebook pet finder and community pages. A number of people had seen Kahlua near Sonny's Barbecue in Alachua but she was skittish and no one was able to catch her. Still, at least the family know she was alive and had hope she could be caught. But the longer she was missing, that hope began to fade.

One of the people who kept up the search was Denise Henault. A dog lover herself, who had owned Chows, she knew something about the breed’s personality and let people know what to look for.

Since Kahlua was seen multiple times in the large expanse of woods behind Sonny's, employees began to leave food out to try and set a pattern for her and then hopefully trap her.

“One of the problems we ran into was that every time someone would post they had seen her, a dozen people would show up to try and capture her, which unfortunately had the opposite effect and scared her off,” Henault said.

By the beginning of March, Kahlua had been missing for10 weeks, but people continued looking for her and trying to find ways to capture her.

Two of the people who continued the effort were Karen Martin-Brown and her husband, David Brown. David put out a large cage and trail cameras. “We had the restaurant put out food on a set schedule to try and establish a routine,” said David.

While the trail cams confirmed she was still in the area and alive, the recordings were on a card. “While we knew she was out there, all evidence was after the fact and didn't help to capture her,” said David. “The best hope was to establish a routine with the food and lead it into the cage, hoping she could be caught.”

The Browns were contacted by Mike Merril, a trapper with Florida Urgent Rescue, who offered his expertise and better equipment. He set a large cage with a trapdoor release and provided cameras that could be connected by WIFI to the Brown's cell phones to provide real-time sightings.

They came very close to catching her one time when she stuck her head in the cage but got spooked and bolted. Two days later, on March 10, they finally had success when Kahlua entered the cage and tripped the release.

The Browns immediately called Henault and she climbed down into the ravine behind Sonny's. “When I got there, I realized we couldn't lift the cage up the incline without help due to the weight with the dog, said Henault. Several men who had been involved in the search came to help, with four of them each taking a corner of the cage and hauling it up to the parking lot.

“I called Cassandra in Virginia to let her know we had captured Kahlua,” Henault said. “She and her kids were ecstatic and very grateful to everyone in the community for their efforts.” After all that time living in the wild, Kahlua was filthy and had ticks. Henault took the dog to her house for a bath and a meal.

Cassandra Bennett headed down early the next morning for the 11-hour drive, arriving at Henault's home around 5 p.m. As soon as the dog saw her, it leaped up, licking her face as her tail wagged furiously.

Kahlua may and been scared of strangers but she was happy to see her family again. Bennett said she and her children are grateful to the Alachua community and everyone who spent time and effort to reunite the family with Kahlua. “We had begun to give up hope we would ever see her again, but so many people here made this possible,” Bennett said before heading back to Virginia to bring Kahlua home.

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