By People Staff
August 28, 2006 12:00 PM


It’s been six months since Vivi, a 3-year-old champion whippet who’d just competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, somehow escaped from her carrying crate on the tarmac of New York City’s JFK airport and dashed into the nearby marshes. An intensive search for her has been on ever since.

On March 11, one woman said she saw Vivi in front of her home, 12 miles from the airport. On April 15, a dog matching the whippet’s description was spotted eating garbage in a driveway; on June 30, a cemetery owner reportedly saw Vivi in between the headstones. (All these sightings were confirmed by tracking dogs, who picked up Vivi’s scent from pieces of her old doggie bed.)

But each time, before her rescuers could arrive, America’s Most Wanted fugitive canine—with a $5,000 reward being offered for her capture—was gone again. “It’s frustrating,” says Bonnie Folz, 41, a dog trainer who heads up a team of a dozen volunteer searchers. “But I’ve grown to learn that patience is what will allow us to find her.”

Patience is what Vivi’s relentless pursuers have in abundance. The mostly female searchers, who go by monikers like Weenie Lady (because of the hot dogs she carries for bait) and the Vampire (who likes to search at night), respond to every credible tip that’s phoned in to their hotline (1-877-JFK-VIVI). “You get such a high,” says Folz, when a hot lead comes in. The lows occur when prank callers claim to have seen Vivi run over by a car.

But the volunteers press on, even questioning people who own similar-looking whippets. “One guy picked the dog’s leg up so I could see his was actually a male,” says Kathleen McGurty-Weiser, 51, an administrative assistant.

“My husband thinks we’re crazy,” says Gail Thomas, 55 (a.k.a. the Vampire), a retired corrections officer. “He thinks we’re chasing after Elvis.” Not so Vivi’s co-owner Jil Walton, 40, a California equestrian with whom the volunteers keep in touch. “We are simply amazed by their commitment and their huge hearts,” says Walton.

Now there’s fresh hope for a rescue. If Vivi went into heat in late June, as predicted, and is now pregnant, “she’s going to settle down and stay in one place” to care for her litter, says Walton’s fiancé, Rick Patterson. Until then, “I pray very hard for Vivi,” says volunteer Rosa Chile, 56, who has kept searching even while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “She’s always on my mind.”