Officer Sylvia Coelho could not stop thinking about the ghost dog.
After the Galt Police Department got a call on April 10 that a dog had fallen out of a pickup truck and onto Highway 99 near Elm Avenue, she scanned the roads, the thick oleander bushes along the medians, the surrounding fields. For weeks, callers reported seeing flashes of a dog hiding within a few miles of the original sighting. But every time Coelho searched, she came away empty. “I started calling her the ghost dog,” the officer said.
The officer and the wayward dog finally came together on a Saturday morning in May, five weeks after the first call to the dispatch center. But by the time she and two others wrangled the skinny German shepherd to safety, it was almost too late. Her back left leg was snapped in half and the bone badly infected. The muscle near her Achilles heel had ruptured. She was dehydrated, emaciated and covered with spiky foxtails, some of them embedded beneath her skin.
The shepherd, now known as Freeway Frida, still is recovering from her ordeal. Her story has made her a bona fide celebrity, and yet she remains wrapped in mystery. How did she end up on Highway 99? Who are her owners? And how on Earth did she manage to survive for five weeks along a busy highway?
“I don’t know how you sit on a freeway island for five weeks and not get creamed,” marveled her veterinarian, Mike Johnson at VCA Bradshaw Animal Hospital in Elk Grove. “I guess she was eating garbage. I’m not sure where she was getting water.”
Frida was in bad shape when veterinarian Elaine Holmes, a surgical specialist at VCA’s hospital near Rancho Cordova, saw her a couple of days after her rescue. Blood tests showed the infection in her bone was in danger of becoming systemic and potentially fatal. “She was close to critical condition,” Holmes said. “If the officers had not captured her, it would only have been a matter of time.”
The Elk Grove veterinary team had started Frida on antibiotics, removed some of the foxtails from her fur and forwarded Holmes film of her damaged leg. The fracture of her tibia was serious and complicated by the bone infection. Holmes repaired it using stainless steel pins attached to carbon fiber rods on either side of the limb. She surgically removed numerous foxtails from Frida’s legs, chest and neck. Repair of the muscle and tendon rupture would have to wait until her bone fully healed and her infection disappeared.
“The bone is improving, but the tendon injury will be an uphill battle,” Holmes said this week. Frida may be facing another two months of hospitalization. In the meantime, veterinary technicians are providing physical therapy, gently stretching her injured leg up to four times a day. She has gained weight and no longer is skittish and distrustful, delivering tail wags and face licks at every opportunity.
The veterinary bill for the care Frida is receiving would be astronomical under ordinary circumstances. But Frida is no ordinary dog, said Johnson, explaining why the hospital is giving her the best care possible without promise of full payment.
“There’s just something about this dog and her drive to survive,” Johnson said. He wonders, he said, whether Frida refused to leave the median because she was “waiting for her owner to come back for her.”
“Maybe it was that loyalty that kept her there,” he said. “Whatever it was, her story is inspiring. It’s been a rallying cry for a lot of people.”
A nonprofit group, Greater California German Shepherd Rescue, has taken up Frida’s cause, featuring her on its website and accepting donations to help cover the cost of her care. As of earlier this week, the organization had raised $2,500, said board President Randy Prudhel.
“We’ve received donations from all over the United States, and even Canada,” Prudhel said. “People are just amazed at how she stuck it out, persevered on rainwater and rats. Who knows how she did it?”
Cash and checks ranging from a few dollars to $500 also have been sent in Frida’s name to the Elk Grove hospital. Letters addressed to “Freeway Frida” continue to arrive. Hospital officials have responded with notes that include an original paw print from the dog.
Frida had no identifying tags or microchip when she was captured. The veterinary hospital and the Police Department have tried to find her owners, but she remains unclaimed.
Dozens of people have inquired about adopting her, but one name has risen to the top of the list. Coehlo, the officer who rescued Frida, intends to claim her if her original owner doesn’t come forward by next week.
On Thursday, as Frida lay in her kennel at the hospital on a soft blanket with an Oakland Raiders logo, chewing on a plush turtle, she spied the familiar figure in her dark blue uniform.
“Hello, sweet girl!” Coehlo cooed as the dog hobbled toward her, offering her a paw. “I can’t wait to get you home.”
Then the officer and the former ghost dog headed outdoors for a walk in the grass.
Anyone who recognizes the dog can call the Galt Police Department at 209-366-7000 or the VCA Bradshaw Animal Hospital, 916-685-2494. To donate to Freeway Frida’s medical fund, go to www.gcgsr.org.