Dog ‘Sam’ no longer on lam

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STRATHAM, N.H. (AP) – Satellite tracking, helicopter surveillance and dart gun attempts failed – it was a boiled ham dinner that brought Sam, a golden retriever, in from the cold after two years on the lam.

Nicknamed the “Golden Ghost,” Sam survived two New Hampshire winters, deer hunting season and being hit by a car – and still no one could catch him.

Peg and Dennis Sklarski of Deerfield adopted Sam in 2004. They say he was raised inside a chain-link fence in Tennessee, sporadically fed, but otherwise ignored by his owners until animal rescuers saved him. The Sklarskis had him only three weeks when Dennis took him to work – and Sam got loose.

What followed was two years of diligent efforts to catch the 4-year-old dog, involving everyone from local dog lovers with treats to animal rescue experts with high-tech equipment. Sam repeatedly sent them home with their tails between their legs. He survived by raiding garbage cans and as time passed, eating the food left for him by various human friends who’d learned of his plight.

Neighbors called the Sklarskis repeatedly when they saw Sam, and Dennis said he spent many nights cruising the roads after a Sam sighting.

In January, experts from Boston arrived with infrared cameras and a remote-controlled net but had no luck. A friend provided the use of his helicopter to search. Steve Sprowl, an investigator with New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, failed repeatedly to get the dog with a tranquilizer gun.

“Sam, he was winning 200 to 1,” Sprowl said.

Sam’s intelligence forced Sprowl to work equally hard at plotting a way to catch him.

Donations enabled the SPCA to buy its own remote-controlled net. The Mitchell family, who were among the people who’d regularly been feeding Sam, offered to put it up on their wooded property.

They installed a video camera that taped round the clock.

Then the work really began. Having identified Sam’s territory, Sprowl and the SPCA asked the people in the nearby towns of Raymond and Freemont to stop feeding the dog. Slowly, they were trying to make the Mitchell property the only place Sam could count on for a meal.

Police Officer Tona McCarthy, who’d devoted hours of his own time to tracking Sam, made sure he passed near the Mitchells’ at a time the dog was known to visit the food dish.

On Wednesday, he lucked out. He spotted Sam in the area. Rather than stop the car and risk spooking the dog, he ignored Sam and continued on to the Mitchells. There he hid, watching for Sam on a video monitor, ready to release a net. It had been up for five weeks, about 500 feet from the home.

Sam had been suspicious of the net ever since it first went up near one of his favorite feeding spots. He’d already evaded three net attempts in other places.

On video, his caution is obvious. He sniffs the air, the ground and looks from side to side. He steps slowly, creeping closer to the food dish.

Normally, Sam grabs the food bowl with his teeth and drags it away to eat. But rather than lose those tasty ham skimmings, he stopped to gobble a few mouthfuls before seizing the bowl.

The delay gave McCarthy just enough time to release the net – the far end just caught the dog as he fled with the bowl.

McCarthy was so excited when he reported his capture on the radio, he gave his colleagues a scare.

“The chief actually pulled over and he thought something happened to me,” McCarthy said, laughing.

Sam, now in a clean cage at the SPCA animal shelter, is being treated for a cut to his upper lip suffered while trying to escape. Veterinarians say he will need treatment for heartworm and Lyme disease and must be watched to ensure he hasn’t contracted rabies.

Sam will remain under observation for 10 days, then he can go home to the Sklarskis, who are counting on his intelligence to help him recognize that it’s not a bad deal to be a beloved pet.

“The first time that I saw Sam after he was rescued, I went to his cage and I got down on all fours and said, Oh, Sammy boy’ and he looked up at me, and he wagged his tail and he reached his paw out to me,” Peg Sklarski said.

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