Melissa Buescher, a 35-year-old from Minneapolis, missed a phone call Tuesday from Billings following one of her late-night shifts at the intensive care unit of a children's hospital.
After listening to the voicemail, she learned she’d be reunited with Leo, her 3-year-old Chow that she hadn’t seen in about seven weeks. Leo had wandered off during a hike in the Beartooth Mountains, and the call she missed was from Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter.
“I ran downstairs right after and told my husband, 'Leo’s alive!’” she said.
Buescher, along with her parents and husband, were hiking the trail to Mystic Lake in early October as part of an annual visit the family made to Montana. While her husband and father stayed at the trailhead to fix a flat tire, Buescher, her mother and Leo scaled the switchbacks on the mountainside that led to the lake.
During a lunch break at the top of the switchbacks, while taking shelter from brutal winds that whipped across the rocky climb, Leo trotted off down the mountain to meet up with Buescher’s husband and father.
“He never made it back to me,” Buescher said.
After waiting at the top of the trail for nearly an hour, Buescher and her family spent the next three hours searching the 5½ mile trail. They looked from the start of the trail to the shore of Mystic Lake and around the dam. She left a shirt behind overnight in the hopes that Leo would know to seek it out and stay with it. When her father returned to the shirt the next day, the Chow was still missing.
"We left there devastated ... I was wondering if he was still in the woods looking for me," said Buescher, who has had Leo since he was an 8-week-old pup.
More than two weeks later, Leo was spotted about 17 miles north of the area in a rural Stillwater County neighborhood.
“We called him ‘Charlie,’ ” said John Rice, who with his wife Susan and neighbor Laurie Niemi, had been keeping an eye on the out-of-town Chow. They also kept him well fed.
While wandering between Fiddler and West Rosebud roads, braving frigid temperatures and the threat of predators like coyotes, Leo dined on dog food, tuna, turkey slices and elk meat left out to coax him indoors.
“John had better food, so (Leo) was usually near his place. One day, I spent three hours feeding him out of my hand, trying to catch him, and then he just went over to where he knew he’d get elk,” said Niemi, who posted photos of Leo to Facebook and talked to neighbors to try and find an owner.
Despite all the fresh meat straight from the Rice's refrigerator, it was an egg McMuffin that ended Leo’s call of the wild. A live trap set by Dave Pauli with the Humane Society of the United States brought him to the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter on Monday. A quick scan showed that he had a microchip.
Of the dogs that go missing who have microchips, more than half are returned, according to data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The chip, about the size of a grain of rice and implanted between Leo’s shoulder blades, gave staff at the Billings shelter a registration number.
Tiffany Smith, the outreach coordinator for the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter, said the procedure is about as invasive as getting an ear piercing. Without his chip, Smith said it’s possible that Leo and Buescher may have never seen each other again.
“Tags and collars fall off, but chips stay with them forever,” she said.
The registration number on Leo’s chip led them to Buescher, who walked through the doors of the Billings shelter Friday. The Chow arrived Monday showing a nervous aggression, but he left with his tail in the air and prepped for an 840-mile road trip home.
“He loves road trips, but he’s super spoiled. He can’t ride in a road trip unless he sits on somebody’s lap,” Buescher said.
When Leo gets home, he'll be rejoining the Buescher's boxer and meeting the latest addition to the family. When the couple thought Leo would never come home, they bought another Chow pup.
"I won't be able to call in sick for a while, with three dogs to feed now."
Photos: Leo the Chow reunited with owner
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