I drove home from work on Thursday evening, February 27th, 2014, giddy at the thought that I would get to work from home on Friday. My favorite days were those when I would write from the comfort of my home in Hartford, Connecticut, with my beloved dogs, Burton and Zuzu, cuddled next to me. Burton and Zuzu are like children to me. I didn't know I could love so deeply until I adopted them in 2011, while I was living in Santa Barbara, California. I had spent months before their adoption combing PetFinder looking for the perfect pup, and when I stumbled upon the pictures of Burton and Zuzu on a community board, I had to meet them. Their mom was a French Bulldog who lived on a farm in California, and the neighbor's Schnauzer had snuck into the yard and left her with a litter of perfect mixed breed pups who needed homes.
I drove out to Bakersfield, California, to meet them on June 14th, 2011. There were three pups still available, and I found myself wondering if I could really leave with only one. I had known I wanted a girl forever, a dog I would name Zuzu Petals after my favorite movie, It's A Wonderful Life. There was one girl in the litter left, and the minute I met her, it was clear she was coming home with me. But then there was Burton. Burton was a little brindle pile of love. He crawled on my lap, fell asleep, and stole my heart. As any animal lover knows, a pet can open your heart to love in ways you've never felt before. And that's what Burton and Zuzu became over the next two years--the loves of my life.
When I drove home on Thursday, February 27th, I couldn't wait to see them. But when I entered my second-floor apartment, my whole world changed. I came in the back door, which leads into my kitchen, and immediately knew something was wrong. The bathroom rug was thrown into the kitchen and the door to my room was open, which is usually closed as I keep the pups in there during the workday. I went into my room to find that it was completely ransacked. My dresser was thrown across the room and my clothes were strewn all over. My first thought was, "The dogs have gone mad." I started yelling for them and ran to the living room to see my TV turned over, as though someone was trying to unplug it. That's when I knew something was wrong. I ran to the front door and realized my home had been broken into--the glass door was shattered, though the storm door had been closed behind when the burglars left. I screamed for Burton and Zuzu and looked for them everywhere in and outside my house, but they were nowhere. They had disappeared, and I was left with a million questions.
Real life isn't Law & Order. You don't get a convenient flashback that shows you everything that happened. Real life crime leaves you confused, hurt, and scared. It's been nearly a year since Burton and Zuzu disappeared, and I have no more answers than I did that first day. There were no fingerprints, nothing stolen, only questions. Not even the $5 bill on the table in my living room had been taken.
Those first weeks after they went missing I cried what felt like every minute of every day. I couldn't eat. I lost 10lbs in 2 days. I couldn't sleep in my bed without them. I had to sleep on the couch. I sobbed every day in the shower, waiting for them to be sitting outside the tub as they usually do, or waiting for Burton to jump in after to lick the tub clean. I went to work and taught my students and tried my best not to cry mid-lecture, though they all knew what I was going through. I used to incorporate my students' pet pictures into lecture (they all know my love of animals), and I had to stop because it was too overwhelming to see any other pets' faces. The day they went missing I was giving a lecture on uncertainty. While I was giving that lecture, someone was in my home, changing my life, making my whole world about uncertainty and the quest for answers.
I knew I had to keep looking for them, but I was falling apart emotionally and physically. And then I found a community. The morning after they went missing, a local radio DJ and animal advocate who my friend contacted showed up at my door. She was the support I needed. She cried with me as though they were her dogs, and vowed to do everything possible to find them. She got every local news station to my house in the following days, and it felt like all of Connecticut knew about Burton and Zuzu within 48 hours. She helped me make a video plea for help and share it far and wide (http://www.theriver1059.com/onair/renee-25581/burton-zuzu-video-update-12576311/). Her friend, the Animal Control Officer for Hartford, spent early mornings before work walking with me through every neighborhood in this city looking for my dogs. As the word of my missing pups spread, so did the kindness of strangers. People would call me from all over Connecticut and surrounding states and sob on the phone with me, heartbroken for what I was going through. There really are no greater people than animal people. I started a Facebook page (www.FindBZ.com or www.Facebook.com/FindBurtonAndZuzu) and asked anyone who could to show up the Saturday after the break in to help hang posters, and hundreds of friends and strangers came ready to help. That Saturday, for the first time since Thursday night, I cried out of joy. I cried for the love I was being shown by people who owed me nothing, who had never met me. I cried out of hope that together this community would find my babies.
The meet-ups to poster and comb neighborhoods for my pups continued for weeks. Every week new people would arrive and tell me that this would be the day we'd find them. People came with food for volunteers. People brought wine to open when we celebrated their return. People donated their time, their money, their hearts to finding Burton and Zuzu. They named themselves "B&Z Nation" and promised not to give up until Burton and Zuzu were home. And they haven't given up.
We've done everything we can think of--newspaper ads, billboards on the highway, doorknob hangers for neighbors, posters everywhere, craigslist ads, news stories, radio interviews, video pleas, postcard mailings to vets and shelters. We keep trying to think of new ways to reach people. We spend weekends together looking for B&Z, and in the process, building our friendships.
Though Burton and Zuzu are not yet home, it helps me to think of the good that has come out of this experience. We've found dozens of dogs during our search that are now in loving homes (in the first month of our search, we helped to find and re-home approximately 40 dogs). Though Burton and Zuzu's love isn't physically here with me, I feel it when I think about the dogs that have been rescued. I may never know the effect those dogs have on their owners' lives, but I like to imagine how the dogs we've found might be helping others. Maybe one of them will save their owner's life. Maybe Burton and Zuzu's disappearance will help others live safely, and sleep peacefully being protected by their new pets. We also started a petition to require all vets and shelters to scan new animals for microchips. We are gathering signatures and plan to take our petition to the capital. Burton and Zuzu are microchipped, but I fear that if they were taken and sold, they may be brought to a vet without ever being scanned to see if they are someone else's dogs. Every time I get a call from an unknown number, I get a wave of hope that it's a call to say their microchips have been scanned and they're somewhere safe. I am not giving up hope that one day I will receive the call telling me Burton and Zuzu have been found.
During this time of texting and tweeting and disconnectedness, some say community is fading. But though I've lost my two loves, what I found is a renewed sense of the goodness of people and the existence of community. While I wish this had never happened, that would also mean having never met the amazing people who I now consider family. The people who brought me food every week for months when I didn't have the will to feed myself. The people who check out a lead with me at any hour of the day. The people who spend hours online sharing pictures of Burton and Zuzu and researching suspects. It's from all this that I still feel Burton and Zuzu's love all around me. I see it in the friends that have become family. Whether looking for Burton and Zuzu or helping each other through the other tough times that have come up in our lives along the way, we've become a support network. Burton and Zuzu's love isn't the same as it was before, with them cuddled on my lap or snuggling under the blankets next to me on a cold night, but it is still here, and I feel their love in the faces and kind words of all the people I've met along the way.
Before this happened, I worried all the time about how I would live without Burton and Zuzu. I became obsessive about checking the house before I left to make sure the oven was off, there were no plugs the pups could get to, and the doors were locked. I warned my friend that the day they passed, I might not be able to go on. After all of this happened, I told that same friend that I felt so weak and lost without them. She turned to me and said, "You're surviving, that's strength." The search for Burton and Zuzu will not stop and we are still looking for answers. And though I still don't know what happened on February 27th, 2014, I do know that what's happened after has renewed my faith in humanity and the goodness of people. The community I've found is the reason I'm surviving, and we all can't wait to celebrate together the day Burton and Zuzu are back home, and thank them for bringing us together.