Lost pet story has dog-gone happy ending for Macon family

When Brian and Bethany Nalley’s family pet disappeared, it wasn’t their handmade signs that led to a reunion with the 5-year-old German shepherd-mix named Sarge.

The key to unlocking this missing-dog mystery was in the efforts of an off-duty Bibb County investigator who happened to check his Facebook account over the weekend.

When animal control officers picked up the 90-pound Sarge on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard last Tuesday not long after he went missing, the one tag on his collar was so badly worn that it was unreadable by the naked eye.

Jim Johnson, director of Macon’s Animal Control Shelter, placed on the Facebook page of center mascot AC Pup a reminder about making sure pets have readable tags.

Bibb County sheriff’s deputy Mark Schultz, one of AC’s nearly 2,400 friends on the popular social networking Web site, read about the worn tag and volunteered to take it to the county crime lab, where he works as an investigator. Through a process called acid etching, investigators often can read filed-off serial numbers on guns, and Schultz thought the process could work on the dog tag, too.

“Acid etching helps us brings the numbers out,” Schultz said. “I was able to bring the numbers out enough where we were able to track the owners down. ... We do it on firearms all the time, and we do it on cars all the time.”

Once Schultz was able to make out the seven-digit rabies vaccination number from the tag under his microscope, animal control workers were able to get in touch with Sarge’s owners.

The Nalleys had posted signs in their neighborhood near Northside Drive — almost three miles from the spot where county workers found Sarge.

Bethany Nalley said she and her husband have a fenced yard and have no idea how Sarge got out.

Normally, Sarge wears two tags on his collar, but the one with all his identifying information — including the family’s name, address and phone number — somehow got lost between the time Sarge got loose and when he was picked up.

Monday afternoon, about a week after Sarge’s disappearance, the Nalleys finally reunited with their beloved canine.

Bethany Nalley said the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Anna, had been asking about Sarge. When animal control reached Bethany initially, she was expecting to hear the worst.

“I was really nervous,” she said. “They asked me to describe him, and I thought it was because he was dead.”

But she was relieved to hear the dog at the pound was alive and that she needed to identify him in person. Nalley said the walk to the back of the pound also made her nervous, because she was worried she would find, after all, that it was the wrong dog.

The Nalleys, however, immediately spotted Sarge in a small, fenced-in yard at the shelter, and their anxiety quickly turned into happiness.

“I was excited,” she said, embracing Sarge. “He’s our dog. I was worried that it might not be him. ... I don’t know whether to be mad (at Sarge) or to give him a big steak.”

Brian Nalley said he had called animal control Thursday, but none of the dogs there at the time matched Sarge’s description.

Johnson said while the Nalleys’ story may have had a happy ending, he underscores the need for pet owners to have ID tags for their animals.

Schultz said dog tags made through the stamped method work best, because they are inexpensive and last much longer than printed tags.

Johnson said it’s rare to have a dog tag so worn that it can’t be read. Most dogs that arrive at the shelter either have identifiable tags that allow workers to get in touch with a pet’s family or are strays who don’t have any tags or collars at all.

“We try to get every pet back with their family that we can,” he said. “This makes us all very happy.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.