Finding Emma

19th Dec, 2018

Written by Marianne McLean

Emma the German Shepherd Dog joined our family when she was just six weeks old. We immediately loved her, and when she went missing, we stopped at nothing to get her back…

A loving dog

Our family (my husband, Alan, and our now grown-up children, Eddie and Helen) have always had German Shepherds in our lives. In August 2016, our grandson, Michael John, came to our home to celebrate his first birthday in Cape Town. His parents, Helen and Rob Moore, are both vets living in Robertson, so it was no surprise to see Mikey toddle straight up to Emma to greet her.

From the very first moment, Emma was totally besotted with this little boy who stood as tall as her, looked her in the eye, and smiled. They simply loved playing together, sharing dog pellets and splashing in Emma’s water bowl. Batty, our pavement special – who, sadly, is no longer with us – looked on with interest but preferred to keep his distance from the mischievous pair.

Emma’s great escape

On Monday the 20th of February 2017, shortly before her first birthday, Emma was booked to be spayed at the local vet. Alan took her in and, after safely securing her into a cage, he headed off to work.

Later that morning, we received a call that no dog owner wants to get: Emma was gone. She had escaped from the practice before her surgery and disappeared.

Not only had she managed to get out of the cage, but once outside she scaled the electric boundary fence – shocking herself in the process – and fell down a three-and-a-half-metre drop, head first into the adjoining petrol station. She’d picked herself up, run through peak-hour traffic and smashed into a low concrete retaining wall before disappearing towards Observatory (a suburb near Cape Town).

Finding Emma

We immediately organised a search party; on foot, by car/scooter/bicycle. We notified all vets, SPCA and all animal welfare organisations, distributing posters and flyers by hand and on Facebook. Lauren Moore (Michael John’s godmother) set up a Facebook page, “FINDING EMMA”, which immediately attracted huge attention.   

Within a few days of Emma’s disappearance, we received a number of calls – possible sightings in Bergvliet, Pinelands and Brackenfell. We followed up on all leads, searching for her. No luck.

On the 23rd of February we got another call. A German Shepherd had been seen walking along the Liesbeek River heading towards the Wild Fig Restaurant. She had her lead attached. We were sure this was Emma as she was wearing her lead when she escaped. The day was spent scouring the area. Eddie and I stayed up all night, walking along the river with Batty or sitting quietly near the food that we’d left for her. No sign of Emma, but plovers were feasting on the pieces of vienna sausages (Emma’s favourite treat).

Dog in the river

The following day, Alan was called at work: Emma had been spotted by workers cleaning the river along the M5 below Valkenburg Hospital. He raced to the area and, surrounded by workers, spooked Emma out of her hiding place in the reed bed. 

She was so terrified that she didn’t recognise Alan and ran away back down the Liesbeek River. The next day, I walked the area with Batty and saw Emma again. Batty ran after her but, again, she was so traumatised that she ran away from her best four-legged friend, back towards the reed bed behind Valkenburg Hospital.

The following day, Alan arrived with work colleagues and they systematically searched the entire reed bed – no luck.

Changing tactics

We now realised that Emma was severely traumatised and that we’d need to change our tactics. We consulted dog obedience trainer Julie Tobiansky and canine behaviourist Lynda Montignies for advice – both were highly professional and so caring and helpful throughout the duration of our search.

Julie organised a drone to see if Emma could be spotted in the reed bed from above, but there was no sign of her. Mowbray vet Dr Bronwyn Leverton played a major role in our search, regularly scouring the area and staying in constant contact.

Five days after her disappearance, we hired a porcupine trap for the weekend from the SPCA. We are grateful to Ismail Adams who assisted with transportation and setting up of the trap along the Liesbeek River. We left chunks of take-away friend chicken inside and activated the trap, hoping she’d be hungry enough by this stage to be lured into the cage.

We also hired a watchman for three nights to observe from a distance and to call us if there was any activity. After three long days there was still no sign of Emma and the food was left untouched. By now we were thoroughly exhausted and disheartened. Little did we know what lay ahead.

Throughout this time Jason Mears, a family friend who knows Emma well, was unobtrusively walking the area every day, checking paw prints and tracking a circular route that Emma seemed to be walking on a regular basis. Our son, Eddie, also walked the entire route hoping to catch a glimpse of Emma.

It now appeared that Emma was hiding by day and walking by night. Jason put food down every night at the reed bed behind Valkenburg. But it always remained untouched.

On the 1st of March, the Cape of Good Hope SPCA called: a dog resembling Emma had been found. I eagerly headed off to their premises in Grassy Park. And, yes, this dog looked so like Emma – she even came to me when I called Emma’s name – but, sadly, it wasn’t our Emma.


That afternoon we received a call from a guy who lives in his car by the river. We’d seen him before during our search and he seemed keen to help us find Emma, asking for petrol money to help him in his search; he was also acutely aware that there was a reward in the offing. He’d phoned to tell me that he was holding Emma by her lead.

I raced to the area where he was waiting at the traffic lights. He jumped into my car – without Emma – and directed me towards Observatory to where he claimed Emma had just bolted. As we wove in and out of the narrow streets, he described how Emma had bitten him on the hand. I started to feel uncomfortable as I knew that Emma would sooner flee than bite anyone.

Batty, growling in the back of the car, gave me the courage to deal with a potentially dangerous situation. (Dear Batty was my personal bodyguard since his arrival in the McLean household five years previously.)

I drove this guy back to the river and he again asked for petrol money, by which time I realised that I’d been well and truly conned. That evening I texted him to say the search was off. Which, of course, it wasn’t – not until we found our Emma.

Signs of Emma

The next day, our friend Jason reported that the food bowl was empty. And he noticed paw prints all over the area. Eddie spoke to a homeless woman who lives under the bridge with her dog to check if her dog was eating the food and to ask her to keep an eye out for Emma.

Then, a fire broke out in the reed bed near the Wild Fig, which had apparently started during a fight between two homeless people who live in the area. Having finally seen signs of Emma, we were terrified that the smoke might now chase her out of the area completely.

The next day we received a call: “Two guys who appear to be homeless are walking a German Shepherd towards the Spar in Observatory”. We followed up on this and spent the next day walking/driving/cycling through the streets of Observatory, putting flyers in post-boxes, questioning passers-by and sticking up more posters.

Who was eating the food?

By the 3rd of March, Emma’s first birthday, she was still nowhere to be seen. Our hearts were heavy and we couldn’t stop worrying about her.

Jason stalwartly continued to put food down every evening and check for tracks. Over the next five days, he sent us photos of a clean food bowl and plenty of paw prints in the area. In amongst these prints he noticed a clear line in the sand that he was convinced was an indentation of Emma’s lead! Her tracks suggested she was walking in and out of the reed bed behind Valkenburg Hospital by night and hiding by day. 

In an attempt to identify who was eating the food, we bought a night-vision trail camera and set it up in a tree nearby. On the 9th of March, we focused it on the food bowl and set it to take a picture every minute. The next day we scoured through several photos before we saw the first “capture” shot at 9PM. It was a porcupine. Our disappointment was palpable. We’d been so sure it would be Emma.

But we refused to give up and continued wading through endless empty shots of the food bowl. And then, like a ghost, there she was: emerging at 01:30AM from the bushes. Several further images recorded her, lead still attached, eating from her bowl. It’s difficult to describe the mixture of relief and utter joy when viewing these images. In an instant, the camera was worth every single cent and more!

The lowest point

Bolstered by the good news, the following night Alan sat in his car nearby, from midnight to 6AM, convinced he would spot Emma and lure her towards him. But there was absolutely no sign of her. To our deep disappointment, she stayed away, leaving her food untouched for the first time in several days.

Emma was clearly still in a state of severe shock and was not ready for human contact.

This was possibly the lowest point in our search. Family, friends and our ever-growing Facebook fraternity, who’d been following Emma’s every move, shared in our disappointment. We decided to continue leaving food with minimal human intervention.

The next night Jason reported that Emma’s food bowl was again empty. It felt as if we just couldn’t win. Our daughter, Helen, suggested we gradually change Emma’s diet to include her regular dog pellets and pet mince in hopes that familiarity would do the trick. Up until then we’d been leaving strong-smelling tinned pilchards and dried tuna, kindly donated by Alison Kruger, to tempt her. Jason continued to put food down every night.

On the 12th of March Helen came to Cape Town with Mikey. With his happy disposition he was able to put a smile on all our faces. He picked up a handful of dog pellets and called for “Enna” and walked around the garden looking for his friend; our hearts broke. Blissfully unaware of the unfolding situation, he decided to feed Batty instead.


We started looking at the possibility of accessing a humane leopard trap. This took several days of research, during which time we were encouraged by an empty food bowl every morning. Patience was now considered to be an important factor in successfully getting Emma back safe and sound.

We had come so far, and with enormous support from so many people, we had to believe that Emma was gradually calming down and coming to her senses. She might even have been comforted by the familiar smell of home.

On the 21st of March, exactly a month and a day after her escape, we set up the camera for the night to confirm Emma’s presence. The camera revealed that a big black cat was eating the food early on in the evening, and Emma appeared around midnight to eat the leftover; footage showed her chasing the porcupine away at around half past four. She stayed in the area until about 06:30AM and then went into hiding again. But now we knew for sure she was still there – and we knew the best time to catch her.

The following day we took her best friend, Batty, and walked him through the area; he obliged by lifting his leg everywhere. That night there was evidence of plenty of activity from Emma. She must have smelled Batty’s presence.

Laying the trap

Based on the previous night’s footage, we decided to change our feeding routine. In an attempt to “shut out” the cat, we put the food out later (10:30PM). We laced it with anti-anxiety (not sedative) meds prescribed by Helen. In the event of the cat getting to the food first, the meds wouldn’t have posed any health risk (clearly the cat had been enjoying these gourmet meals and looked decidedly fatter than Emma!).

Thanks to Mossie Basson of Graham Beck Wildlife, we were very fortunate to have the use of a humane leopard trap for as long as we needed it; thanks also goes to Helen Tiffin for transporting it from Robertson – a two-hour journey.

On the 24th of March, the cage and camera were set up; food was placed outside the cage and dried tuna was scattered inside. The trap was not set as we needed to record Emma’s movements and ensure that she became used to the cage before safely trapping her. We did this for three consecutive nights.

At first, Emma was seen poking her head in the cage; by the third night she was walking through the trap. It was time to bring Emma home.

The capture

On the 27th of March, my daughter came through from Robertson for the final capture. We set up the cage at 10:30PM, placed two small bowls of food inside on either side of the trigger, and carefully activated the trap. We headed off home and tried to sleep for three hours (no one slept!) and returned at 01:30AM, hearts in our throats. Would she be there?

One cannot imagine our anxiety as we approached the cage. We all knew that, after what Emma had endured, we only had one chance at this. If she wasn’t trapped, she’d have been so afraid that it wasn’t likely we’d ever get close again.

Helen and Alan reached the cage first. Emma was in the trap, unharmed. Overjoyed, scarcely believing our eyes, we gathered around her and she licked us through the bars of the cage.

We opened the cage door and Helen swiftly injected her with a tranquiliser (we didn’t want her running off now). Emma was gently guided to Alan’s car and she hopped right in. Our journey home was accompanied by whoops of joy, tears of relief and stunned silence and disbelief. On arrival home, Emma was given an injection to reverse the tranquiliser.

Other than being very thin, Helen found no evidence of illness or injury. Batty was over the moon to be reunited with his big sister, though a bit confused at all the fuss at 02h00AM! Emma shakily wandered around the house and climbed onto the sofa as if she’d never left. She gently licked every hand that reached out to her.

With reeds still stuck to his trousers, Alan fed Emma and Batty with bits of her favourite vienna sausages. Amid all the excitement, we tried to get some sleep, Emma and Batty lying in the middle of the bed with Alan and me on either side. We finally emerged after an extraordinary night.

After 36 days alone in dangerous territory, Emma was finally home.

The capture on camera

The next morning, we watched the camera footage of the previous night to see how it all unfolded.

Emma was seen eating all the food, walking through the trap twice WITHOUT setting it off. She then looked straight at the camera as if to say: “I’m ready, come and fetch me” and promptly walked back into the trap, setting off the trigger. There was no sign of anxiety or fear during the hour she was trapped. She appeared to have been waiting for us.

On Michael John’s next visit, it was business as usual; he and Emma got thoroughly wet and grubby together and, as always, had eyes only for each other…

Over the next few months, Emma continued to make a slow and steady recovery. She was very comfortable with family and friends but was still terrified of strangers. Sadly, during this time, Batty had to be euthanised following a severe spinal injury. I was devastated to lose my most amazing and loyal companion who’d been at my side every day during our search at the river.

Gradually, we realised that it was time to look for another four-legged friend for Emma – and in walked Lego! Little did we know that this special boy would become Emma’s personal therapist and play a huge role in her full recovery.

There are so many people to thank for their advice, encouragement, love and support throughout Emma’s extraordinary journey; family, friends, and thousands who followed Emma’s story on Facebook.

Thank you for the part you played in FINDING EMMA.