On a June day in 2014, Kirstin Campbell's car skidded off Mayo Farm Road in Stowe and slammed into a tree. Though she suffered a dislocated shoulder, Campbell managed to get out of the car and open a rear door to check on the family dog, Murphy. The Morrisville woman was relieved to discover the 3-year-old golden retriever hadn't been hurt in the backseat. Then Murphy stood up and bolted into a nearby field.
He hasn't come back.
For the past year, Campbell, 24, her grandfather, Ed Hamel, and others have tried to catch Murphy, who has been spotted numerous times along the Route 100 corridor between Morrisville and Waterbury. But the dog has been unwilling to give up life in the wild. Somehow, he survived a brutally cold winter.
Family members and a devoted group of dog lovers have deployed game cameras, custom-made traps and a gun that fires a large net. They've consulted an animal psychic, trappers and a wolf tracker. They have enlisted countless locals to post Murphy sightings online and created a phone tree to spread any news about the missing canine.
But they haven't been able to bring Murphy home.
"If you say his name, he runs like a jackrabbit," said Hamel, who lives with Campbell. "He doesn't know who he is." Hamel's wife and grandaughter talked him into getting the animal. "He was the sweetest guy you ever wanted to see. He wanted to please you."
The collision, they figure, rattled the dog: Previously, Murphy was well behaved and always listened to commands. Now, he won't even respond to his nicknames, "Good Boy" and "Mr. Brown."
A professional dogcatcher confirmed that such post-accident behavior is not unusual. Holly Mokrzecki runs Granite State Dog Recovery, a New Hampshire agency that finds around 600 lost dogs a year. About 75 percent of the cases involve a traumatic event like Murphy's car wreck.
"A lot of dogs will go into what we call survival feral-dog mode. Some of them will resort to that within 15 minutes of getting away from their owners. It's pretty amazing," Mokrzecki said. "You're calling, 'Buster, Buster,' and he's not thinking, That's my owner; they're trying to help. There's something in their brain that says, I need to keep moving; this is a predator trying to get me."
In the weeks after the collision, numerous people spotted Murphy, and game cameras captured his image in Stowe and Morrisville. He appeared to be headed toward the family home in the Cady's Falls area of Morrisville.
He stopped in Stowe, where a woman called to report that he'd been on her property. She let Hamel put a box trap out for Murphy, but he never showed up there again, and the woman's own dog got snagged instead.
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Courtesy of Wilson Ring
Murphy caught on camera at night
By January, Murphy seemed to have settled in Waterbury, 30 miles south of the accident. He began making regular appearances outside the home of longtime resident Wilson Ring, who recognized the dog from online postings.
Though Ring didn't know Campbell or Hamel, he immediately contacted them and set to work. Months of near misses followed.
"It's quite a story," says Ring, who would know — he is the Vermont correspondent for the Associated Press.
Ring put food in the yard to encourage Murphy to make regular visits. Then he let Hamel and others set up traps there. For several days, they left one open with food inside, to get Murphy comfortable around it. When Murphy started making a habit of going inside to get the bait, they set the trap door.
But something always went wrong.
At first, Murphy was able to avoid activating the trap's trigger, which would close the door when he stepped on it.
On bitter-cold nights, Ring didn't set the trap, for fear that Murphy would be caught and freeze to death. One night, Ring unset the trap at 11:05 p.m. and went to bed. Cameras showed that Murphy visited at 11:21 p.m.
A few nights later, Murphy entered and stepped on the trigger. But the door was frozen and didn't drop.
Not long afterward, Murphy was caught in the trap, but by the time Ring got there, the dog had gnawed and pawed his way through its wire mesh and run off.
"We had him," Hamel said, " — for 20 minutes."
Erika Holm, who is a Middlesex animal-control officer, found out about Murphy from Ring's Facebook page. She donated materials for more sophisticated traps, including one with a magnetized door and a laser sensor. She also bought security cameras to provide coverage of Ring's yard. One of the cameras sent a live feed to Holm's cellphone.
Over the course of the winter, Murphy made almost nightly appearances in the yard. Sitting at home in Waterbury, Holm would stare at the footage on her phone and try to will Murphy into the trap.
"I would sit and watch him not go in," Holm said. "Very frustrating. Especially on the nights when it was 20 below."
By February, Ring and others were confident they were closing in on Murphy. But he stopped coming around as much, and, when he did, avoided triggering the trap.
"We've got all kinds of knowledge, but the dog is smarter than us," Hamel said. In addition to living off Ring's bait, his searchers figured Murphy might have been foraging in local Dumpsters or trash cans, or perhaps stealing dog or cat food left outside for other pets. Most of the camera images show a lean but healthy dog with a thick, golden coat.
When Ring went away on vacation in June, Hamel and others took shifts keeping vigil in his barn. They were armed with a net gun on loan from a humane society worker in Bridgewater.
One night, Murphy came by. Hamel called to him, and, when the dog didn't respond, he fired — and missed.
By now, the searchers have tried almost everything. Campbell even consulted with an "animal communicator" — a Massachusetts-based psychic with the purported ability to communicate with animals at great distance — to learn about Murphy's whereabouts. Although a tranquilizer gun was initially ruled out, for fear the dog would run off before the drugs took effect, Hamel and family are reconsidering it. The challenge is finding a cooperative vet.
The saga has gotten plenty of local attention.
Hamel has posted regular updates on Front Porch Forum, with Ring adding details on his Facebook page. Murphy happenings have been dutifully chronicled in the Stowe Reporter and the Waterbury Record.
Strangers have pitched in. Every time Waterbury resident Lisa Lovelette got news of a Murphy sighting, she would drive to the area and poster the neighborhood. She also set up a fund that has raised hundreds of dollars for Murphy's hoped-for recovery.
Why has she done so much?
"I have dogs," Lovelette said. "I thought, Gosh, if I lived 30 miles away from where my dog was, I would hope somebody would help shepherd this whole effort along."
Hamel fears that Murphy essentially has amnesia and will never recognize his owners.
But Holm said Murphy knows his name — he just has bad memories of the last time someone shouted it at him.
"He's doing what works for him, and what works for him now is to be free, because he feels safe," Holm said. "I have no doubt that dog will come around and be happy to be home. He will say, 'What took you so long to catch me?' He's been learning over time how to survive, but he's not a feral dog. He's somebody's pet."
In the meantime, Murphy's rescuers are requesting that no one attempts to chase after him.
Hamel has thought several times about giving up on Murphy. The search has taken more hours of his life than he cares to tally. But when you ask him why he keeps going, Hamel states what is obvious to anyone who loves an animal.
"I can't give up on him," Hamel said. "It's my dog."