TAMPA — The drive back to Chicago three days after Christmas was a long, arduous one for Katie Hutek and her boyfriend Matt Volk.
The couple had to leave Hutek’s parents’ home in Carrollwood without Frankie — their dog of just under 3 years. The dog, rescued from a Chicago animal shelter in 2011, had bolted from the yard on Christmas Eve and hadn’t been seen since.
“To get in the car and there’s still her dog hair she shed, it was devastating,” Katie Hutek said of the drive back to Chicago without Frankie. “I was heartbroken. (Matt) was, too. I had a hard time keeping it together.”
On Sunday, Hutek, Volk, and Frankie, a 2 1/2-year-old pit-mix, were reunited in Tampa.
Frankie was missing for 12 days when Hutek’s father, Steve Hutek, spotted the dog on the morning of Jan. 5 while he was outside retrieving a newspaper.
“It was light, a little bit before 8 and I look out towards my neighbor’s … I see an apparition,” Steve Hutek said. “As she’s staring at me, I say, ‘Frankie? Frankie, come here.’ And instead of just bolting across the grass, she trots on the sidewalk, trots up the driveway and then I open the door and she comes right in the house, no questions asked.”
Frankie’s coat was matted, she smelled a bit foul and had a couple of small wounds on the top of her head.
Steve called Katie and Matt to deliver the good news.
Sunday, as Frankie wedged herself between the relieved pair, Volk, 41, could finally joke.
“My version is that she tangled with gators,” he said, laughing. “She’s got some marks, so I’m going to tell all my friends it was gators.”
The couple flew in Sunday morning on a direct flight from Chicago and rented an SUV. They packed it up Sunday afternoon — this time with Frankie — and began their three-day trek back to Chicago a short time later.
During the ordeal, they kept in contact with Hillsborough County Animal Services and well-wishers in the area through Facebook and Craigslist.
After posting a missing dog ad on Craigslist, they were contacted by two volunteers, separately, from animal services. Both passed on a tip sheet on how to search for missing pets in addition to the Facebook page, “Lost and Found Pets of Hillsborough,” Katie Hutek said.
“The animal service here is unsurpassed,” Volk said. “It was outstanding.”
Katie and Matt placed Frankie’s photo on the Facebook page as well as Petharbor.com, a site for lost pets, and received numerous replies asking for a full description of Frankie as well messages of encouragement. At least 100 people shared the photo on Facebook, they said.
The night Frankie disappeared, there was heavy foot traffic in the Carrollwood neighborhood as folks lit their homes with Christmas lights and luminaries. Some even set out refreshments for the neighborhood tradition.
While Steve Hutek was outside with the dog, a neighbor, who met Frankie a year before came up to her and called her name. Frankie, who Katie and Matt said can be at times “skittish,” bolted away.
After canvassing the neighborhood, the Huteks placed Frankie’s dog bed outside on the porch and a bowl of dog food at the end of the driveway to lure her back, but it didn’t work.
“It was heartbreaking they had to leave without their dog,” Jane Hutek, Katie’s grandmother, said.
As the pair drove back on Dec. 28, they talked about Frankie’s foibles and how they were slightly irritated by them. She would place her paws on the center console from the back seat invading their space. Or sometimes they would have to cajole Frankie into the back seat after she jumped into the front while they were stopped for gas.
They wanted those things back.
“I’ve been counting the days,” Katie Hutek said. “We found out a week ago and we had to wait the full week to come here and see her. Monday and Tuesday I tried not to think about it because I would get too excited.”