Texas couple reunited with lost dog in Tucumcari

Courtesy photo: New Mexico State Police Lee Gardner is reunited with Chance, her search and rescue dog, Wednesday at the New Mexico State Police office in Tucumcari

Russell Anglin

Forth Worth, Texas, retirees Chick and Lee Gardner were devastated to find their search-and-rescue dog, a black labrador retriever named Chance, missing from their car and care while returning from a California vacation Saturday night.

The couple realized that one of their three search-and-rescue dogs was not in the car with them when they stopped in an Amarillo hotel Saturday night. It turns out Chance had hopped out of their car to pay patrons a visit earlier that evening when Chick and Lee stopped at the Flying J truck stop in Tucumcari. They had not realized Chance jumped out of the car when they popped the trunk.

“I was like, ‘What do you mean he disappeared? That’s not possible,’” Lee said.

Chick called the Flying J immediately. A cashier there said one of the Flying J employees had discovered the dog and had him at his house.

The Gardners drove back to Tucumcari, planning to pick up Chance and return to their Amarillo hotel. But when they returned, they discovered Chance had left the caretaker’s house. It was back to square one for the Gardners.

Chance had already earned his name twice before. Lee explained that Chick found Chance at a Fort Worth animal shelter. Chance was a mange-infested puppy then, but Lee said Chick nursed the puppy back to health.

“My husband said, ‘No, I can see the life in this dog. I think we need to take this dog home,’” Lee said. “He’s 75 pounds now.”

Three years ago, Chance experienced another battle for his life when he came down with bloat, a digestive dysfunction that is one of the leading killers of domesticated dogs.

“I have to call him Second Chance now,” Lee said she thought after Chance survived his bout with bloat.

Lee could only hope there would be a third chance for Chance as she and her husband did all they could over the past week to recover their dog. After a trip to recover their possessions from Amarillo on Saturday night, the couple checked into a hotel in Tucumcari, determined to find their canine family member.

Lee called her daughter and son-in-law to bring their search dog out from Fort Worth to search for Chance on Sunday.

“She found his scent right away,” Lee said of her daughter’s dog. “She wandered for a couple blocks and that was it. There was no direction of travel. I did not know what to do at that point. We figured that somebody had picked him up. My husband went around to everybody Monday.”

The Gardners were not ready to give up. According to Lee, the couple traversed every square block of Tucumcari multiple times over the next few days, desperately searching for their search and rescue dog.

Chick, an ex-military animal operator, had served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Vietnam before he and Lee retired to work with animals on a full-time basis. Lee just retired from a career as an educational diagnostician this year.

Lee explained that Chance is trained as a live-find dog, meaning he will search for live bodies in the wilderness after disasters or accidents have taken place.

Lee said she and Chick searched for Chance over the next few days. They spent their July 4 holiday looking for Chance.

“We were thinking during the fireworks he might jump out and try and get out in the street and we might see him and we didn’t see him,” Lee said.

So the search continued. Lee said she was amazed to find how helpful Tucumcari residents were when she asked for help.

“Tuesday my husband went around to everybody including the radio station … not one single person said ‘I don’t have time for this. Don’t bother me with this.’ It was absolutely amazing,” Lee said. “I got out … I guess it was about 1, 1:30 (p.m.). I found a gang of kids at one of the corner places. They had their music blaring and everything, and I pulled in there and asked if they’d seen him and I told them I’d really appreciate if they’d look for a dog and there was a reward and they said ‘Yes ma’am. We’ll go right away and look for him.’ They were very, very nice.”

As it turns out, resident Jennifer Jiminez had located the dog near St. Anne’s Catholic Church after Saturday’s evening Mass. Attempts to reach Jiminez have been unsuccessful as of Thursday, but Lee said Jiminez took great care of Chance. Lee said Jiminez heard Chick talking about Chance on the local radio station Wednesday morning.

“He got back to the hotel and it wasn’t fifteen minutes after he was back before (state police dispatcher) Kim (Molyneaux) called,” Lee said.

After days of searching, Lee, Chick and Chance were reunited once again. The Gardners returned to Fort Worth on Wednesday evening.

“I was so worried about (Chance) being out in the heat, being out without water,” Lee said. “We just felt really, really blessed.”