Where’s Cookie? Stars help in Epping Forest hunt for runaway whippet

Search for the elusive dog goes viral with celebrity appeals, a crowdfunding campaign and 8,500 Instagram followers

Thermal drones, K9 tracker dogs, stake-outs and desperate pleas from Pixie Lott, Jennifer Saunders and Anita Rani: the hunt for Cookie the whippet – lost in Epping Forest since November – is gathering pace.

The 18-month-old sighthound went missing eight weeks ago in the 6,000-acre forest, after spotting a herd of deer and chasing after her quarry at 30mph.

Wearing a distinctive black dog-fleece jumper, she has since been sighted frequently all over the forest – most recently last Thursday – and is believed to be surviving on rabbits, wood pigeons and roadkill.

“Normally, she has amazing recall and is really well trained, but she saw that herd of deer … and that was it: she bolted off,” said her owner, Leonie Freeman, who lives 20 minutes away from the forest in north-east London. There was no way to know where she had gone, and she didn’t come back. “If you’re a dog owner, this is your greatest fear.”

Freeman, her husband and their two “distraught” children – Milo, eight, and Nancy, four – spent hours in the forest that day trying to find her, while constantly hearing that she was being spotted in different places. “It was an absolute nightmare.”

Cookie the Whippet
Cookie the whippet with four-year-old Nancy, owner Leonie Freeman’s daughter. Photograph: Leonie Freeman

She thinks her whippet, who has nearly 8,500 followers on Instagram, went “wild” after being chased that evening by a well-intentioned member of the public who was trying to capture her. “She was terrified – and she quite quickly went into this deep survival mode. She’s basically living like a fox, and hiding from people because she thinks everyone’s a predator.”

Dog lovers such as Lott, Rani, Saunders, Mark Wright and Freeman’s MP, Stella Creasy, have all shared posts on social media about the missing dog, and a crowdfunding campaign to bring Cookie home has raised more than £6,000.

This enabled Freeman to hire a K9 tracker dog – a cocker spaniel called Harvey who specialises in finding lost dogs – to look for Cookie, as well as a thermal drone and a professional trapper. She and an army of volunteers are also roasting chickens to put in food stations around the forest twice a day, in the hope of luring Cookie into a regular routine so that she can be trapped.

“If she’d been a cockapoo or a smaller dog, there’s no way she would have survived eight weeks. But she can hunt. She’s young, fit and strong, and she has a naturally high prey drive. So she is somehow surviving.”

Freeman takes hope from the fact that Harvey found fresh scent of Cookie close to where the whippet was recently sighted. “He was really useful in being able to confirm some of her routes, and some of the sightings that were a little hazy.”

But, she adds, he’s “off the case” now. “We think that any active searching is pushing her away.”

Between them, she and her husband, Nick, spend 10 to 12 hours in the forest every day, replenishing the food stations and hoping that Cookie will recognise them, all while trying to hold down their jobs and home-school their young children. “We are tag-teaming being out in the forest every day and night. We’re exhausted. The house looks like a bomb’s gone off, and normal life has just gone out the window.”

What keeps her going is the support and “incredible” acts of kindness she has received from strangers and fellow dog owners all over the world, particularly in the sighthound community, and she is very grateful for the help of the Epping Forest wardens. “We’re living through such a rubbish time with Covid, and bleak news everywhere you go. Somehow this little lost dog seems to have found its way into people’s hearts. It will make so many people happy if she’s found. Everyone just needs a good ending to a story right now.”

Contributor

Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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