Incredible journey: Naperville dog reunited with family

Ace Hunter is steadily returning to his old self, after being lost outdoors for more than week. The Labrador retriever's Naperville family had all but abandoned hope of locating him, despite an exhaustive search assisted by countless volunteers, as temperatures plunged to historic lows earlier this week. | Submitted
Angie Hunter's Labrador retriever, Ace, is home in Naperville after vanishing on New Years Eve when he was startled by fireworks. Angie, her husband Andy and their six kids were helped by many volunteers in the week-long search that ended happily when Ace was found - cold and famished, but otherwise unharmed - five miles from home on Jan. 7. | Submitted
| Submitted

Ace is a good dog.

He sticks close to home and approaches strangers with shyness — and streets with extreme caution. He adores the eight humans who share his central Naperville house.

He’s also become a bit famous in the past few days.

The 6-year-old Labrador retriever was at home on New Year’s Eve. His people were having their annual party, and all was going well — until a guest stepped out the front door near midnight, just as fireworks blasted outdoors. Ace was badly shaken. As dogs often do in response to the sudden, loud noise of explosives, he ran.

Immediately the holiday party morphed into a search party — an extended one.

Family and friends fanned out, scouring the East Highlands neighborhood until 3 a.m. before taking a break until the sun came up. They learned that employees at Rosebud, at Washington Street and the West Branch of the DuPage River, said they’d spotted a dog that looked like Ace going past, headed north.

It was plausible. Ace and Angie Hunter, 44, a breast cancer survivor, go walking every day, usually along the river. It was familiar, and it has long stretches that are far removed from the traffic that frightens him.

Group effort

Bolingbrook resident Teresa Barlow, who watches Ace when the Hunters go on vacation, quickly got word that he was missing. With a snowstorm approaching, and two days of frigid cold forecast to follow it, time was critical.

“I called Angie and let her know that she should check out Lost Dogs Illinois,” Barlow said.

It hadn’t occurred to the Hunters to look for Ace in cyberspace.

“I’m not the type of person that asks for help,” Hunter said, marveling at the power of social media, including LDI’s Facebook page. “In 24 hours, there were 2,000 shares.”

Barlow also headed over to the Hunters’ on New Year’s Day morning with her aunt, Peggy Moss, a volunteer with LDI. They agreed that fliers would support the search, “so anybody we saw, they could give them something to hold onto,” Moss said.

There was power in numbers.

“Angie’s neighbors were just amazing. They were out everywhere that day,” Moss said. “When your dog gets lost, you just do everything you can to get them home.”

Plenty of tips came in, including multiple sightings of a dog fitting Ace’s description in Hillside. Sure, it was a long way for a dog to go, but the Hunters had learned that meandering dogs sometimes follow rail lines, in the same way they do rivers and streams. So when Hillside police called at 3:45 a.m. Sunday to say they’d cornered a dog looking like Ace, Angie’s husband Andy Hunter climbed into the car with their oldest son, 17-year-old Adam, and made the trip through heavily falling snow. But by the time they arrived, the dog had slipped away.

Several more reports came in of possible sightings — near Porter Avenue, off Freedom Drive, in the area around the Lifetime Fitness and Target on Diehl Road. One came from a woman who said she’d tried to lure a dog that sounded like Ace with a chicken nugget, but he had abruptly run off.

Keeping hopes up

The search involved many people. When the Hunters called Naperville police Saturday to report a minor accident one of the kids had just had with the car, they mentioned the missing dog to the responding officer.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I know. We’re all looking for him,’” Hunter said.

And when someone said they’d spotted a set of paw prints behind the Regal Cantera theaters, without human footprints alongside them, Barlow went out to check. No Ace, but it was promising. Searchers began visiting the area multiple times daily, noting when tracks were fresh.

“The snow actually helped all week, because we would see tracks and we could tell whether they were fresh or not, after the snow had blown over the older ones,” Barlow said.

Still, hope felt like it was slipping away. It was particularly tough on the kids.

“I’d go to tuck them in, and hear praying,” Hunter said. “It was just so awful.”

And as the imminent cold front drew nearer, it became still harder to remain optimistic.

“I said to my husband, ‘We’ve got to move on,’” said Hunter, who was sleeping very little and had lost her appetite.

She felt they had done all they could to find a dog that was simply gone.

Gut feeling

On Tuesday, as Hunter and her husband were returning home from DuPage County Animal Care and Control in Wheaton and feeling discouraged, Barlow called to say she had found fresh tracks by the theater again.

“My gut said, ‘Let’s just go for one more ride,’” Hunter said.

Temperatures remained subzero, but the couple made their way into the area behind the theater. And there, snuggled into a makeshift nest formed from dried, tall grass, they saw Ace.

The dog promptly wolfed down two cheeseburgers picked up at McDonald’s, and then two cans of dog food provided by the vet, who was their first stop. His coat had grown a couple of shades darker, but incredibly, he had suffered no serious damage.

Two days later at home, Hunter told a visitor that Ace wasn’t quite back up to speed. He hadn’t yet begun playing again.

The dog came over slowly, head bowed and tail wagging, displaying a plush moose toy he held gently between his teeth. He was coming back.

“It’s so amazing,” Hunter said.

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