FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — When Frankie Pruitt came home from school for the holidays, he stopped on the way up the driveway to hug his pit bull, who had run to him with her tail wagging. "Petunia!" he said, rubbing the fur around her ears and looking into her brown eyes.
"Same eyes," he said. "Same old Petunia!"
He hadn't seen the dog since 2003, when she ran out of the house one morning just as she always did, headed toward the family alpaca barn but didn't come back.
Perhaps a million pets get lost every year, and 3.7 million are killed at shelters. Petunia beat the odds. She was found in a wilderness area 2,700 miles from her Virginia farm and sent home.
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Eight years ago, Kristen and John Pruitt and their children worried that their friendly, affectionate American Staffordshire terrier had been hit by a car. Or, maybe even worse, pulled into a brutal dogfighting ring.
Instead, their dog seemed to have embarked on a cross-country trip that took her — who knows where? All they know for sure is that she was found wandering in the foothills of a wildlife preserve in Northern California, got picked up by a wildlife biologist, then was jetted home for an improbably glamorous return via Times Square, mixing with celebrities, political candidates and Rockettes, all in time for the holidays.
Frankie Pruitt was 7 when his dad passed a sign for puppies and decided, on a whim, to take one home. He told Frankie not to tell his mom. They had plenty of room for another dog on their 100-acre alpaca and horse farm near Fredericksburg. But Kristen Pruitt said she didn't want a pit bull in the house with her children; it seemed too dangerous.
"Then I saw her, and she was so small, and so ugly, and so cute," she said.
And sweet: That's why they named her Petunia.
The sandy brown-and-white dog slept with Frankie, wiggling up to his pillow during the night, snoring her head off. She ran free, following him around the place, an old family farm that played a role in the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville, with a pond, tall magnolias and horse fences criss-crossing the fields.
Then one morning around Thanksgiving 2003, Frankie was drinking hot chocolate in their big stone house while Petunia and two other dogs, Booboo and Bear, ran out before breakfast, and only two of them came back.
Frankie and his family didn't worry at first. In rural Spotsylvania County, they figure, someone would see their missing-dog signs. But as the winter wore on, they gave up hope.
A few days after Thanksgiving 2011, Meg Eden, a wildlife biologist from Oregon, was camping in Spenceville Wildlife Area in California. It's a remote spot miles from any houses, mostly grasslands and oak trees with mountain lions, foxes and coyotes, which Eden heard howling at night. One morning, a dog appeared over a hill and came toward Eden with her tail wagging.
Eden, who rescues dogs, had just a moment's hesitation because it was a pit bull. But the dog seemed delighted to see her.
The dog snuggled with her and her dogs that night. "Her personality is 100 percent sugar," Eden said.
Eden called an animal shelter, which began searching for an owner. In this rare case, it was easy: The Pruitts implant microchips in all their animals. Only a small minority of pet owners do that, but the number is growing, said Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Pruitts' vet called them. Frankie didn't believe it until he saw a photo. Petunia!
Then Petunia went big time, appearing in local papers and on national TV when Fox News Channel paid to fly her back East. She was friendly in the New York studio when she saw the Pruitts, but they weren't certain she remembered them.
But as soon as they got back to the farm and let her out of the car, Petunia seemed to know she was home. Her tail was wagging so fast that it's invisible in the photos they took. She touched noses with Booboo, their tiny fluffy Maltese-toy poodle mix, then raced into the house right to the spot where her water bowl had always been.
"She seemed ecstatic," he said.
The Pruitts can't help but wonder where she'd been all this time.
When Frankie saw her, he immediately noticed the eight or 10 jagged scars and traced them with his hand in the short fur on her head. They think it's from a barbed-wire fence, not from dogfighting or abuse. Because she seems to be the same old Petunia: sweet, gentle.
With maybe just a tiny wild streak underneath it all.
She does seem to be the kind of dog who loves to wander, Kristen Pruitt said. Sometimes, Petunia will stop outside and just stare into the woods.
The other day, they opened the door and Petunia trotted out, headed toward the alpaca barn. "Frankie!" Kristen Pruitt called, leaping forward to grab her collar.
Petunia looked back at her, tail wagging.
"Get her leash!"