Operation Teddy: Inside the Search for the Most Wanted Dog in St. Louis


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click to enlarge "We don't have kids. Our animals are like our kids," says Mike Holden, shown here with wife Carolyn and their beloved Teddy.
"We don't have kids. Our animals are like our kids," says Mike Holden, shown here with wife Carolyn and their beloved Teddy.

The couple returned to St. Louis about 9:30 p.m. on March 21, and all they could think about was finding Teddy. Carolyn's father and stepmother each drove a car to the airport to meet them, so Mike and Carolyn could take one of the vehicles and drive straight to south county to begin the search.

They spread through the neighborhood, freezing every time the beams of their flashlights reflected off the eyes of a cat or something moved in the weeds. Someone had reported seeing Teddy to the east of Mary Holden's home along Tesson Ferry Road, but Mike and Carolyn really had no way of knowing which direction Teddy had gone or how far he had traveled since his escape.

At first glance, the area where he went missing seems covered in asphalt and the neatly trimmed lawns of brick bungalows. But as they began to search, the Holdens began to see the topography in a new way. A network of streams, cloaked in thick walls of brush, crisscrossed Sunset Hills, Crestwood and unincorporated parts of south county. Clydesdale and Whitecliff parks were both nearby, along with Sunset Country Club, cemeteries and open construction sites. Teddy could be anywhere.

Mike still had about a week of vacation left from the shortened trip, and he spent it searching for his lost dog. Each night, he returned to his mom's house around midnight to sleep a few hours on her couch before waking at 5 a.m. to set out again. Carolyn shuttled around a 70-mile triangle between their house in O'Fallon, her shop in St. Charles and the search area in south county.

They laid out a paper map, stuck a pin on Mary Holden's house and used a string to trace a five-mile radius. Teddy was somewhere inside it, they were sure.

In the beginning, Carolyn and Mike did all the normal things the worried owners of missing dogs do. They tried to imagine where Teddy would go, and they searched there. They hung fliers with cute pictures of him, and they posted pleas for assistance on lost pet websites. Friends and family helped, and a few hardcore animal lovers began to notice their efforts and offered some assistance.

Most searches fizzle out at this point. The owners find their dog, run out of energy or lose hope. The search for Teddy, however, hurtled on like an asteroid, gaining mass and velocity with each rotation around the south county neighborhoods.

Carolyn and Mike proved to have a stunning amount of stamina for the hunt. At least one of them spent a portion of every day hiking through the woods or driving the streets and hanging fliers. If someone called with a sighting, they went. They searched on their wedding anniversary. Neither had to work on Easter, so they searched then, too.

One day, about two weeks in, someone spotted a ginger-haired dog and called. Mike's mother got there first and phoned them.

"Oh my God, it does look like him!" she told Mike as he and Carolyn sped toward the spot. "Oh my God, Michael. It's Teddy!"

They arrived in Sunset Hills and quickly spotted the dog. He was skittish and scampered off the road when they called him. Mike and Carolyn assumed he thought he was in trouble for running away. All they had to do was assure him everything was all right and bring him home. Their hopes soared.

Mike caught sight of him again in a fenced-in backyard, and he and Carolyn split up in hopes of cornering him. It wasn't until they closed in tight that they saw the dog was wearing a red collar, not a black one like Teddy's.

"A complete doppelganger," Mike says. "Dead-on."

The false sightings were exhausting, but a team of volunteers was quickly building up to support them. The fliers and a "Help Bring Teddy Home" Facebook group spread the word across south county. Some volunteers, like Tina Roe of the nonprofit group Missouri Lost & Found Paws, were search veterans, lending a hand in dozens of missing pet cases month after month, year after year. Roe was instrumental in the high-profile search for Matt the Cat that dominated social media in the Shaw and Tower Grove neighborhoods for two months last winter. When the elusive feline was finally located, it was Roe who confirmed the good news by scanning the microchip embedded in his skin.

Other volunteers, including Diane Fitzgerald, were first-timers. The 57-year-old bank teller noticed a flier one day in Schnucks. There was something about it that stayed with her. She asked her daughter to look up the Facebook page, and they both decided they could help out for a couple of hours. They met Mike and Carolyn shortly after, and Fitzgerald was struck by their dedication. The two had already been searching for weeks but seemed utterly incapable of giving up.

Fitzgerald remembers one moment in particular when she saw Mike, hiking alone, hoping to see Teddy around the next tree. He seemed such a tragic figure.

"To see him walking down the creek, calling his dog, would bring you to tears," she says.

Fitzgerald was never an outdoors person, but she began to join Roe on nightly hikes through the woods. She also drove the neighborhoods during her lunch breaks. Every day on Facebook, the volunteers analyzed each new piece of information and coordinated the next searches or flier postings. Carolyn and Mike would occasionally chime in with updates and thanks, but it was mostly the volunteers who kept the conversation going. They shared theories and frustrations, compared notes on miles logged and weight lost during their walks. There were inside jokes and plans for meet-ups. They called themselves Team Teddy.

"I can't explain it," Fitzgerald says of the newly formed community, "but once you're in it, you're in it."

As the search continued, they began to learn of other missing dogs. One, a golden retriever mix named Bailey who'd run away in the same area, looked so similar to Teddy that callers would sometimes confuse the two when phoning in sightings. Team Teddy and Bailey's owners shared info about the sightings to make sure no crucial tips were lost in the confusion.

Bailey had been missing ten days when her owners brought in an out-of-state pet detective with a team of scent dogs to help. Using a sighting from Team Teddy, the K-9 trackers were able to pick up Bailey's trail and led the investigator straight to her.

The news was bittersweet for Carolyn and Mike. They were overjoyed to see Bailey return home, but they assumed they wouldn't be able to follow the same steps to find Teddy. More than a month had passed since he disappeared, and they didn't have a dog bed or harness that hadn't been pawed over by their other animals. It didn't seem possible the K-9s would be able to isolate a scent for Teddy the way they had for Bailey. Would they ever be able to bring Teddy home?

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