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Ace in the hole: He rescued dog trapped in canyon

Every dog has its day, and for  a puppy trapped 350 feet beneath the rim of a Utah canyon, that day came in the form of hiker Zak Anderegg, who found the starving stray and risked life and limb to haul him out the hole single-handed.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

If there’s a doggy heaven, this had to be it: a black pup lying with his head on his favorite human’s lap, looking blissful as he’s petted and cuddled.

The dog had reason to be happy: Less than two weeks ago, he was waiting to die at the bottom of a 350-foot-deep canyon on the Utah-Arizona border. That’s when a miracle dropped out of the sky to save him.

The deliverer of the miracle was Zak Anderegg, who enjoys rappelling into the narrow canyons and holes that perforate the rocky desert landscape. Zak sat next to the dog on Friday, but the pooch took no notice, more interested in being comforted by Zak’s wife, Michelle, who sat to Zak’s left on a couch in their Holladay, Utah, home as they told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira the extraordinary story of how Zak risked life and limb to rescue the dying animal.

“I think he forgot who rescued him,” Zak quipped, as the dog continued to happily ignore him.

At death’s door
It was early last week and Zak was on vacation alone in the area near Page, Ariz., where he planned to pursue his passion for what’s called canyoneering. He picked a spot, rigged his ropes, and dropped into a slot in the rocks so deep and narrow that little light penetrated to the bottom.

After working his way down some 350 feet, Zak noticed something moving in the gloom in a deep pothole in the rock. At first, he had no idea what it could be.

“It’s just the last place in the world you’d expect to find a dog,” he said. “I looked over the edge, and I saw this black thing just walking in circles. My first thought was perhaps it was a cow, because there’s a lot of grazing in the area. He was very bony, and for some reason it struck me that he might be a little calf. And then the longer I looked at him, I realized he’s actually a dog.”

Seeing the animal’s desperate condition, Zak climbed back out of the canyon, got some water and food, and rappelled back down. He poured water on the floor of the pothole and left the food, which the dog seemed unable to eat, climbed out again and went for help.

“He was completely starved,” Zak said. “He was, my best guess, 24-48 hours away from death.”

Risky rescue
Zak had to find a way to save the dog’s life.

“It was never a question,” he told Vieira. “When I saw him, my heart just absolutely broke. Within about 10 seconds of realizing what he was, my plan shifted from vacation to rescue — get him out of here.”

Zak managed to record video of the canyon and the dog on a flip camera he’d brought along because Michelle said he never took pictures during his expeditions. He called Michelle on his cell phone and told her about finding the animal, and his intentions to attempt to save its life.

Zak drove into Page and went to the local fire department to ask for help. He was told that neither firemen nor police had the resources or the ability to help: He was on his own.

So he went next to the Page Animal Hospital, where he was given a red, plastic cat carrier big enough to hold the dog, as well as dog food and dishes for food and water.

The next morning, Zak was back at the slot canyon. He first took food and water down to the dog, which drank and tried to eat, but immediately started dry-heaving. Then he brought the pet carrier.

What he was doing was risky — canyoneering is not a sport for the faint of heart. But, Zak said, he took no undue risks in saving the dog.

Six hours away in the Salt Lake City suburbs, there was nothing Michelle could do to help. But she said she did not try to talk Zak out of his rescue mission.

“I could hear his voice, how sad the situation was, but I was really nervous about it,” she admitted. “I was standing by the phone to wait to hear when he got out of the canyon with the dog. I was pacing. I was very confident in his ability to get the dog out safely, but it was a little nerve-racking.”

One lucky dog
Zak said he got to the bottom with the carrier easily enough and had no trouble getting the dog into the carrier. Then the hard part began — getting himself and the animal out safely.

He did that by rigging up a rope and pulley to haul up the dog after he got up himself. “Ascending with him was about 25 minutes,” he said. “I got to the top, I was pretty much done for the day.”

He took the dog to the animal hospital, where veterinarians said the pooch was doubly lucky: Not only had Zak saved him from certain death, but the dog also showed signs of having survived canine distemper, which is fatal to 95 percent of the animals it infects.

No one knows how the dog came to be trapped in the canyon, but his lack of other injuries or broken bones suggest someone put him there rather than the dog falling down such a great distance.

When the dog was discharged from the hospital, Zak brought him back home with him. He calls the dog Puppy because he and Michelle already have a dog and two cats. Zak doesn’t want to get attached by giving the dog a name; his hope is that they can find a good home for the dog.

But Michelle calls the dog Shadow because it has become totally attached to her — like a shadow.

She’s kind of hooked on the dog, too.

“We‘re so attached,” Michelle admitted as the dog rested contentedly with his head on her lap. “I walk and I stop and he bumps into me. He follows me so closely, he comes everywhere with me.”