EDINBURG, Va. (AP) — Benji, a 9-year-old bichon frise, was one hot dog.
Four weeks ago, Benji was stolen, along with his owners' car, from a restaurant parking lot in Jonesville, N.C. On Thursday, the pilfered pooch was reunited with his family at the Shenandoah County Animal Shelter.
"Got a little white dog here that you don't know what to do with?" owner Linda Schneider called as she entered the shelter. Moments later, Schneider and her husband, Bob, were bombarded by Benji's excited barks of recognition.
"It's a miracle. It truly is a miracle," she said through tears.
"One in a million. A billion," her husband added.
The Wolcott, N.Y., couple recently bought a home in Mooresville, N.C., Schneider said, and they'd gone down to close on that property. On the way home, they stopped to eat at a Cracker Barrel in Jonesville, he said.
"And it was very hot that day, so, erroneously, I decided to leave the air conditioning on in the car," which was unlocked, he said. They went in, and Jason Osborne, who's wanted by police in several states, "traded up" to their 2009 Honda CRV, Schneider said. "And I'm sure (Osborne), at the time, didn't even know there was a dog in there," he said. "He just grabbed the car and went."
The car was recovered in Ohio on Sept. 3, Schneider said, but Benji wasn't with it.
Meanwhile, Shenandoah County Animal Control Officer Ernie Walters got a call around Aug. 25 that a white dog was running in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Woodstock. The dog eluded him, he said, but he grabbed him at a fruit stand on Aug. 31.
Ray Jones, the founder and president of Guardian for Animals, said Jonesville's police chief approached his organization for help on the case. The group soon found a woman in Las Vegas who offered a reward for Benji's return, and advised the owners to check animal shelters, he said.
Though many dogs, including Benji, now have identification chips, they end up in shelters because "even a seasoned veteran that scans dogs might miss a chip," he said. That's what happened in this case initially, he said.
Cheryl Wakeman, an animal caretaker at the shelter, said it posts pictures of its dogs on www.petfinder.com. Mrs. Schneider said she went through hundreds of pictures before she found the photo of Benji. She called the shelter, and they were able to use Benji's microchip to confirm his identity, Wakeman said.
"Her voice was shaking and cracking," Wakeman said. "You could tell she really, really wanted it to be him."
When asked what Benji meant to them, Mrs. Schneider said, "Well, he's everything."
"Our kids are grown," her husband added. "He's family."
But, "if there's a lesson to be learned, it's don't leave your keys in the car with a pet or anything," Mrs. Schneider said.
Every vehicle Osborne has stolen has been unlocked, Jones said. Owners should have an extra set of keys so they can lock their car if it must be left running, he said.
The couple said they wanted to thank everyone who'd helped them, especially Jones, who worked relentlessly to find Benji.
"My heart's just a beatin'," Mrs. Schneider said. "We have so much to be thankful for. We had faith that he'd come home. "We've just discovered how many wonderful people there are in the world."
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