Updated: Jul 12, 2021
It was New Year’s Eve as we made our way across the desert to Santa Monica from Las Vegas, Nevada. Jonathon and I wanted to get out of the desert and enjoy feeling the humidity, hearing the waves while massaging our toes in the sand. Our Korean Jindo rescue Mochi joined in the back seat as with every adventure. He hated the fireworks that spread across the valley for hours last New Year’s Eve so we decided to get out of town. We wonder if the fireworks remind him of the Bok Nal festival in Korea where over a million dogs are consumed in the form of ‘bosintang’ soup each year.
On December 31, 2017 our beloved Mochi ran away in the desert. At a rest stop in Primm, Nevada, we came back to our car and found Mochi had disappeared. Why had he jumped out of the half opened windows when he had never tried to escape with the windows fully open in the past? We would never know.
We rode our skateboards to search the parking lots of the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas. There was a security guard in the Primm Valley Lotto Store parking lot who said he had seen a white dog in a harness with a leash trailing behind running south into the California desert earlier. At this first sighting, our hearts sunk as we realized that we would be tasked with finding a dog in the California / Nevada Mojave Desert that night. Little did we know, finding Mochi would take us on a long adventure over the next two weeks!
Heartbroken, Jonathon and I started searching the desert adjacent to the Lotto Store and parking lots hiking miles into the dry brush. The further we strayed from the parking lots, the more we realized how desolate it was out there. It happened to be a full moon which made for a powerful start to the new year. We were devastated and stayed the night in Primm hoping to have better luck the next day.
After more calling for Mochi while walking miles through the desert in the morning, we decided to go home and make lost dog signs. Using the vast network of the internet was the best way to try and find him if someone had picked him up or dognapped him. If that were the case, he could be anywhere from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and beyond with how much traffic there is between the two states on New Year’s Eve. It felt like it would be more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack, but I knew we couldn’t stop until we had found him dead or alive.
We returned to Primm on the January 1st, 2018 to post signs, talk to the locals, and leave clothing items, food, water to draw him back in. Apparently many dogs get lost and even purposefully left behind out there. There were many available resources in the vicinity of the mall and rest areas that made us feel like Mochi could survive. So many people claimed he didn’t have a chance against the coyotes in the area but we knew him as a strong survivor who could handle suffering, especially considering his past from Korea.
The area of Primm wasn’t even a town. Attractions at Primm include The Lotto Store, The Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas, Whiskey Pete’s Casino & Hotel, Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino, Primm Valley Casino Resorts with fast food restaurants and gas stations scattered between. The only living quarters there are an apartment complex owned by the casino to house employees. Of course we alerted all of the security teams throughout the hotels and posted signs everywhere, tried talking to as many locals as possible while learning the lay of the land.
One of the security guards told us there was a woman in the area also searching for a lost dog. It happened to be a local lost dog whisperer named Vickie. She was immensely helpful in showing us spots to look and where she had found dogs in the past. We decided to stay in touch on Facebook, as Vickie is very active in the Las Vegas pet search and rescue community. Who knew there are so many Facebook groups dedicated to reuniting lost animals with their owners in Las Vegas! Without Vickie’s help we wouldn’t have had a chance at finding Mochi, you’ll find out why soon…
After having to return from Primm for a second time without Mochi, we tried a digital approach. Since we had lost him on the state line border between Nevada and California, I posted on both state’s Craigslist, Facebook, and lost dog web networks like PawBoost and Lost My Doggie. Creating and updating lost dog postings became a nightly ritual. It was incredible how motivated the community was in reaching out to help! So many people sent leads of dogs that looked like Mochi who had showed up in the pound or found roaming the streets all the way from Vegas to LA. There were many false leads but each one fed our remaining sliver of hope.
Another very real possibility we had to face was the idea that someone could have taken him with them either to Vegas, LA or beyond. As a Korean dog meat farm rescue, we knew Mochi to be very skittish around strangers. We also couldn’t deny someone could have grabbed him by the leash and pulled him into their vehicle. There were a few obstacles we had to overcome before feeling confident he would return to us if this had happened. We had to register his microchip under my name and update our contact information. This ended up being a long, intensive process because the organization responsible for coordinating his rescue had the physical microchip paperwork and needed time to dig it up.
Another hold up was that my phone number registered to Mochi’s dog tag was to a personal line that no longer had a physical phone. Luckily, we got the information updated, transferred the microchip under my name, and bought a new phone to attach to the outdated phone line on Mochi’s dog tag. I learned to avoid potential disaster, always be prepared for the unexpected by keeping any contact information connecting you to your pet up to date. You never know what may happen!
One day after our 9AM-5PM jobs, we spread physical fliers up and down Highway 15 at rest stops, veterinary clinics, feed stores, and animal shelters from Las Vegas to Victorville. Someone might have seen him or decide to turn him in for our $500 dollar reward. We were hoping for any sign of him.
After a week of searching the area, we had to get creative. Our friend Tony recommended using a drone to get an aerial view. He happened to know a guy (typical Tony) who is a local professional drone camera operator. Ben and his Ellingson Productions crew aerially searched the perimeter from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to the road where Mochi was last seen running. The equipment he and his team used was incredibly precise. There were several moments where we all held our breath as Ben zoomed in on a large white rocks or pieces of trash. Ultimately, no news was good news. Not finding any remains at least gave us hope that he may still be alive.
The next day was a Sunday so we headed out again to search with our friend Josh (Josh Williams Photography) who also had drones to contribute. The weather was much better and wind wasn’t an issue so we made a day of it yet again.
Between driving, hiking, and drone exploration we thoroughly covered a search radius of 10 miles from where Mochi had last been seen. Adjacent to the outlet mall lies a solar plant and golf course that we did our best to scour as well.
I remember the second week being much harder than the first as we started to realize we may have to settle with the idea that Mochi was gone for good. There was one day in particular, when we had a hot lead that didn’t pan out, that I took it especially hard. I am an incredibly determined soul, but there comes a point in time where you have to realize you’ve done all you can. After nonstop posting on social media, Craigslist, and lost dog subscription marketing services we were losing hope.
One Saturday morning, two weeks after Mochi was lost, I received a phone call from an unknown number that restored our faith! It was about 10AM and Beth, an active participant in our online search, alerted us to a Facebook post that might lead us in the right direction. A family off roading in the desert saw a white dog with a leash running scared by the noise of their side by side utility vehicles.
We immediately got in touch with Melissa and Justin, who told us they had passed a cave in which a dog may have been living. Their son Tristan was especially concerned leaving the dog in the desert and they were happy to help reunite him with his owners. The family said they could meet us later that day at 2PM to show us the exact location. We decided that though our car couldn’t make the off road drive through the desert hills to this cave, we could certainly hike it. Melissa shared the location and eager to hit the road we got an early start.
Traveling 8 miles on foot was a stealthy way not to miss any potential opportunity to spot Mochi. So, we took the Jean exit and drove out past the prison until my Mazda 3 could go no further. Hiking through sand for 8 miles was a great workout and we were able to ask several groups of off road enthusiasts if they had seen a white dog. No one had, and most said he was likely coyote meat.
Finally we turned a corner and heard another two side by sides coming up through the wash. We introduced ourselves and unlike many previous off road enthusiasts we had met along the way, Melissa and her family believed we could find him. They gave us a ride to an eroded dirt wall along the pass that one could barely call a cave. It was the only 3-4 foot overhang we had seen so far on our hike, but it certainly didn’t seem like an ideal shelter compared to areas around the mall and golf course. Melissa said the dog had run from the ‘cave’ and surprisingly, there were indeed light paw prints on the dirt floor. We left food, water, and scents from home hoping Mochi might find them. Before leaving the scene, we swept the dirt floor hoping to find another potential sign of his paw prints.
It was a fine balance between leaving too much scent to attract coyotes and wanting the dog to have nutritious food. We left a pile of his favorite dry treats in the cave making sure it wasn’t too fragrant to attract other predators.
Melissa and her family would meet us again the following day for more off road searching, revisiting the cave to see if anything had eaten or drank the rations left behind. They gave us a ride back to our car in their side by side ATVs which was a thrillingly fun ride despite the circumstances.
Beer Bottle Pass is approximately 8 miles away from where Mochi was last seen running into the desert. It was in the complete opposite direction of where we had expected him to run based on his last sighting at The Lotto Store.
The next morning on January 14th, we awoke with excitement trying not to get our hopes up too much. Upon returning with the help of the ATVs there were no additional signs of Mochi. Only this time, the food and water were gone. After thoroughly searching the wash within Beer Bottle Pass via Melissa and her ATV, we left for the day feeling slightly defeated but one step closer to potentially bringing our pup home! We knew it was likely we had found Mochi’s location. Now, how to get him back to his domestic roots?
This is when we were contacted by lost dog whisperer Vickie who had continued to follow along with our story. As a search and rescue hero in the local pet owning community, she had connections. Surprisingly, Vickie knew a trapper who specialized in extreme cases of urban lost animal rescuing. The trapper Ms. A, who requests to remain anonymous, was moved to help us!
Ms. A has helped many people reunite with their animals in the past. Her track record shows many successes. She had so much insight to help us understand what we had done right and wrong in our search for Mochi. Ms. A said it was the perfect time to set up a trap as we know there was an animal returning to the ‘cave’ and eating / drinking what we had left behind. She suggested not leaving food for a few days before setting the trap so the animal would be hungry enough to be lured in.
It was hard to stay patient, but we had to wait to set a plan in place. On Monday, January 15th, Vickie and Ms. A agreed to spend the night 8 miles into the desert in the middle of nowhere to trap Mochi and bring him home! Stuck with two low clearance hatchbacks, our cars wouldn’t make the cut. Not wanting to bother Melissa and her family on a school night and after all they had done for us no less, we rented a four wheel drive Ford Excursion the next day to take them up. Jonathon met Ms. A and Vickie at the base of the dirt wash to get to Beer Bottle Pass. He drove them to the ‘cave’ and took advantage of the opportunity to learn all he could from Ms. A as she prepared the trap.
As a professional trapper, Ms. A. has an extremely accurate system of baiting the area to attract a hungry, wild dog. She will leave food and water in the near vicinity to provide the dog with a sense of security and comfort associated with the food in that area. The dog is then lured by a delectable raw beef bone dripping with Liquid Smoke hanging from the top of the cage over the trigger. Ms. A’s trap is a traditional humane animal trap triggered by changes in pressure. Once the dog steps to the back of the trap towards the hanging bone, the door will fall shut locking them in the cage.
Jonathon then hiked back and left the ladies to work their magic, basically sitting and waiting until morning to see if the baited trap had worked to draw an animal in. That night was the first night of the year we didn’t feel demoralized, feeding hope that Mochi might be home the next day.
The following morning, we awoke to a text message from Vickie asking if the dog in the picture was Mochi! No moment could compare to realizing that he was coming home and that all of our determination had paid off. What a relief, Mochi had been trapped in the night! He chewed through his still attached harness and leash while in the cage and ate the entire bone that had been hanging from the trap.
Vickie and Ms. A drove him back in the cage and met us at Rainbow Animal Hospital, a highly recommended veterinary clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada. When we first saw Mochi, he looked right through us as if he were a ghost in a shell. We imagined he was in quite a state of shock from surviving 17 days in the Primm Valley desert. It was scary how little he had resembled his well nourished self.
Mochi had lost 10 pounds from his healthy 55 pound weight while living his desert adventure. Despite superficial wounds from where the harness was rubbing his chest and a few cactus pricks, he would be fine after some tender loving care! He must have been close to death, as we found he had been eating dirt to stay alive. We also found small bones in his stool from what might have been a mouse. Other than being starved and dehydrated, then veterinarian said Mochi was healthy. He would experience a speedy recover over the next week with the help of lots of our love!
Ultimately, we should have known to think like a wild dog instead of a domesticated one to put ourselves in his mindset. We didn't realize for rescues with past trauma, being close to human resources is a risk to survival. He would have likely been scared away from the mall and resource rich area of Primm by the loud noise of ATVs, the train, and general commotion. We had been searching the wrong area (shown in yellow) all along based on where he had last been seen running.
Ms. A told us that wild dogs like to follow road clearings and washes, so it would make sense that he wouldn’t continue running straight into the desert in between a highway and the train. According to her, once a dog is away from its domesticated roots it’s instinct will take over and the dog will no longer respond to signs of home. This is especially true in landrace dogs like the Jindo being more closely related to their wild ancestors. She said that calling the dog and leaving toys or clothes from home wouldn’t do much and may even push it away. In survival mode, a dog will want to avoid all threats (including humans if it’s been abused) and will seek shelter first over food and water. A healthy dog can go 4-5 days without water and up to two weeks without food. Because it was Winter, we were lucky enough that it had lightly rained once while he was out there.
The next week Mochi's domestic personality slowly came out more and more to show his sweet nature. At first, he would lay and stare for hours but as he became more nourished his tail would wag and he started to recognize his name again. It truly seemed as if he had reverted to a more primal self focused on survival mode.
Fortunately, we found Mochi after many hours of searching and community outreach. Unfortunately, we were careless enough to lose Mochi in the first place. A mistake we've learned many lessons from! We couldn't have done it without all the people that had helped along the way. A huge thank you to Beth Clement, Vickie Spence, Nini Baltakian of Tails to the Wind Rescue, Tony Lang, Ben Ellingson and his production crew, Josh Williams, Melissa Kay, Justin Kay, Tristan Kay and especially Ms. A. who helped bring Mochi home.