Five years ago, a heartbroken 5-year-old girl from Queens, N.Y., was hanging posters for the return of her lost beagle. Today, after years of wishes, little Natalie Villacis has been miraculously reunited with her beloved dog Rocco after he resurfaced some 850 miles away in Georgia — proving that every dog owner can have their day.
“I was actually scared that I was never going to see him again,” the now 11-year-old Natalie told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Wednesday. “I literally said, ‘I will probably never see him again.’ ”
Cristina Villacis, Natalie’s mother, said the family was shocked to get a call last week from a shelter in Hinesville, Ga., informing them that their long-lost pup had been found after half a decade. Thanks to a microchip implanted in the dog, an effective form of permanent identification, Natalie’s greatest hopes had been realized.
To help fill the aching void left by Rocco, the family got another dog a year after the disappearance — Bonita, a poodle from Ecuador. But even another wagging tail in the household could not fully erase Natalie’s heartache. “She got over it, but she was always wishful that he’d come back,” Cristina Villacis said. “She’d always make wishes.”
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A surprise call
Although she was barely a pup herself at the time, Natalie had no problem remembering the joy of getting a new puppy named Rocco. “I was really excited,” she told Curry.
But one fateful day in 2003, after just two months in the Villacis household, the beagle slipped under a fence and ran off.
The family searched high and low, checked with neighbors and local authorities and posted flyers. But the only thing that remained of Rocco was his little red toy — and the memory of the joy he brought Natalie.
“She was very devastated,” Cristina said. “She kept his toy. She had a scrapbook with his picture.”
Then, on July 5, while Natalie was at a block party, the family received a call from Liberty County, Ga., Animal Control.
“We were so surprised,” Cristina said. “At first, of course, we thought, ‘It’s the wrong dog. It can’t be.’ But I think the turning point was when they said, ‘His name is Rocco.’ Right there, we said, ‘OK, it’s ours.’ ”
When her mom told her the amazing news, Natalie just “cried hysterically,” Cristina said. “She actually wanted to go to Georgia to pick him up, but the ride back was too long.”
A long leash
Natalie’s father, Jorge, and older brother, Nick, flew down to Georgia to pick up Rocco and drove the dog back home in a rental car.
“I was so choked up when I saw him,” Nick said. “It was a very nice moment, just to see him. He was doing well. He looked well-kept.”
Randy Durrence, supervisor at Liberty County, Ga., Animal Control, said Rocco had only a cut under his left eye and a spot behind one ear to show for his years on the road when he was brought in by someone who found him at a local military base. After the dog was scanned for a microchip, which Durrence says is “normal procedure,” he gladly made the call to the Villacis household.
“[Jorge] said he had been missing for five years,” Durrence said. “My understanding is that [Natalie] ran off into the bathroom and started crying right away. She is a real animal lover.”
How Rocco actually got all the way to Georgia from New York remains a mystery.
“Somebody must have taken him there; I honestly don’t think he walked there,” Cristina said with a laugh. “It’s OK, as long as we have him back.”
Durrence said no one came to claim the dog before the Villacis family, and that no one called to report this type of dog missing. But whoever it was that looked after Rocco over five long years has the lifelong gratitude of a little girl in Queens.
“Too bad we couldn’t meet them or see them,” Natalie said wistfully.
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