THOMASTON, Maine — Bella was 8 weeks old when Anabel Arteaga adopted her.
"Since then, she's been a member of the family," Arteaga said. "She loves the kids, the kids love her. She's really important for us. My life wasn't complete without her."
When the 5-year-old lab mix left her home in Thomaston through an unlatched gate on April 29, Arteaga and her boyfriend, Cliff Colson, searched until the early morning hours. The following week was particularly stormy in Maine, with heavy rainfall and flash flooding.
“Sometimes I just laid down on the bed at nighttime and just cried myself," Arteaga said. "Cried by myself in there, because I just couldn’t find her.”
Weeks turned into months, and spring turned into summer. Still, there was no sign of Bella. It would have been easy for Arteaga and Colson to lose hope, but support from Mainers near and far gave them reason to keep believing.
"People called me on the phone just to pray with me and say, 'Don't give up,'" Arteaga said.
"The mailman helped us, the UPS drivers were out looking for us, our school bus driver was helping look for us. Everyone was out there just searching and searching," Colson added.
“I went to Staples to print some flyers. These two ladies in there. They were pretty nice. They didn’t even want to charge me for the flyers," Arteaga said. "They gave me like 200 flyers, and they didn’t want to charge anything. That was pretty kind.”
Social media played a key role in getting the word out to communities beyond Thomaston. As time passed, it seemed inevitable Bella would have traveled far, if she were even still alive. Arteaga worked with the Maine Lost Dog Recovery Facebook page and posted in every area Facebook group she could find.
“When a dog goes missing like that, tracking them down or trying to find them is very difficult," Rene Dorr, the animal control officer in Thomaston, said. "So you’re relying on other people seeing them.”
Then, shortly after midnight on Aug. 4, Arteaga and Colson got the call they'd been praying for over three months and five days. A couple reported seeing a dog cross in front of their vehicle on Route 1 in Thomaston, only a quarter-mile from Bella's home. Could it be her?
Thomaston Assistant Fire Chief Tony Leo was one of the first responders. They found the dog curled up under a lawn tractor, covered in ticks, and shockingly skinny—but alive.
“He called me and said, ‘It is her. It’s Bella. We found her.’ Oh my God, I just sat on the floor and cried," Arteaga recalled. "I can’t really tell you how I felt in this moment. All my skin was like – I started crying, crying, crying.”
“Earlier that day I lost a close relative," Leo shared. "And later that night, having this happen, it really made it worth doing the job."
What Bella was up to for those three months is anybody's guess. But in the end, she was found just down the road from where she started her journey.
“We were expecting to find her somewhere else, like Waldoboro, Washington – another town far, like Lincolnville. Somewhere not really close to here," Arteaga said. "And she was just right there. I think she was on her way back, trying to find home.”
For Arteaga, a Cuban immigrant who dedicates most of her time to work and family, the support from Mainers has meant everything.
“It’s amazing. I don’t even know nobody here and people respond so good. So good," she said with a beaming smile. "So, it’s all I want to say: thank you. Thank you to all of you, all of them. It’s amazing what you guys did for me."
Bella was about 50 pounds lighter than her usual weight when she was found. She's on an eating regiment to slowly regain the weight, and Arteaga said she's expected to make a full recovery.
"I love this state. I love Maine. It's an amazing state. It's quiet, there's so much friendly people," Arteaga said. "And now I'm more in love with Maine. It's incredible. I love Thomaston. I wish I never move."