In the aftermath of a June 21 auto accident west of Cañon City, a golden retriever named Farrah and Amy, a Labrador retriever, bounded into the Colorado wilderness.
First responders rushed to the crumpled white 2019 Toyota Tundra truck and cut out the driver, Mike Simpson. And later that night, they rescued a wagging Amy and returned the pooch to Simpson’s daughter, Cripple Creek Police dispatcher Taylor Salazar, who lived about 20 miles northeast of the crash site.
But a spooked Farrah wanted nothing to do with people.
Fremont County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Toppins told Coffee or Die Magazine the golden retriever became a canine celebrity of sorts, somehow surviving bears, roaming packs of coyotes, and bustling highways, to make fleeting cameos in the western shadow of the Front Range.
“Every now and then someone would see her walking through the field or walking behind a business somewhere,” he said.
Toppins and his fellow deputies were determined to bring Farrah in because she’s a very special dog.
Three years ago, Salazar brought her into her home as an 8-week-old puppy. She was going to be a companion dog for her husband, Fili, who was suffering from stage 4 stomach cancer.
Farrah was with him until he took his last breath, three months after she joined the family. She began dividing her time between Salazar and Simpson. And now she was lost.
Salazar, 36, told Coffee or Die her family kept working with animal rescue groups to woo Farrah back. They set up trail cameras, baited traps, and food and water stations throughout the area.
“Anything that was ever recommended, we tried because we needed our girl back,” Salazar said. “It just never really worked.”
On Sept. 11, Toppins and a fellow deputy, Will Sanders, carried a DJI Matrice 300 aerial police drone into “8-Mile,” a run of ranchlands and brush near the Royal Gorge, a deep canyon carved out by the Arkansas River. They needed to do some drone training but figured why not focus on a missing retriever?
“We saw this opportunity specifically to be looking for a real target in a real environment,” Toppins told Coffee or Die.
Five minutes into their morning training, the drone picked up the infrared signature of a four-legged animal. It was awfully skinny and walked with a weird lope, so at first the lawmen took it for a coyote.
But training footage shared with Coffee or Die captured Sanders soon telling Toppins, “Yep, that’s her. Good job.”
The drone followed the golden dog winding through the yellow, gold, and brown of the brush, barely visible to the naked eye.
But the deputies finally knew where she was. So they called Salazar, who was just getting off a 12-hour dispatch graveyard shift.
Salazar immediately drove an hour south to the Royal Gorge and started hiking into the wilderness.
She crossed a marsh, dodged cactus, and wiggled past thorns but didn’t care because, as she told Coffee or Die, she was “on a mission” to save her dog.
And then she spotted her, behind a barbed wire fence.
Salazar began tossing pieces of chicken she’d baked at home over the weekend, carefully avoiding direct eye contact with Farrah. But through her peripheral vision, the dispatcher could see the retriever “getting closer and closer to me.”
Farrah hopped through the wire and put her head in Salazar’s lap.
“And that was it,” said the dispatcher, adding that Farrah started rolling on her back to ask for a belly rub.
Petting a dog she’d worried had been killed, Salazar said she “just started bawling.”
The dispatcher knew she had to get Farrah to a veterinarian, but she also was worried about the dog’s weight.
She estimated the retriever had lost half of her weight and had dwindled below 45 pounds. So she kept feeding her and took her to the vet the next morning.
That’s when she learned the dog had dislocated her hip and knees, possibly from being hit by a car while she was on the loose.
One hind leg might need to be amputated, but Salazar told Coffee or Die, “I’ll take a three-legged Farrah any day.”
“The sheer fact that she survived 82 days out in the Colorado wilderness is just a miracle. It’s amazing,” Salazar said. “For a dog that we didn’t think had any survival instincts, she is a badass.”