'Wonder dog' found wandering and bloodied in a Mendocino County forest, recovering from gunshot wounds

Investigators believe the dog, Thunder, was shot by its owner during an attempted euthanasia. Now he's on the mend - and his story has spread around the world.|

No one really knows what Thunder the German shepherd is thinking at any given moment.

But it's hard to resist the temptation to read in his eyes the depth of pain, betrayal and sorrow he might be feeling as a result of his experience in recent weeks, as legions of well-wishers following his story online over the past month already have done.

Shot and badly injured, then left to wander in the forest on the Mendocino Coast, the emaciated 7-year-old dog appeared near his end when a Fort Bragg woman managed to win his trust and deliver him from the wilds last month.

Now recovering, he still has a long road ahead and remains in need of the perfect, permanent home.

But his playful side has emerged already, and his mere survival has moved the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe.

When Thunder first appeared in the woods near Caspar - limping, bloodied and oozing so much pus from infected wounds that he carried a stench - it wasn't obvious he would live.

“I thought he was going to die right then and there,” said Davina Liberty, who came to Thunder's aid that day and is now fostering him in her home outside Fort Bragg.

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office says Thunder had been shot - by one of his former owners, detectives believe - in an ill-conceived plan to euthanize their aging pet, Capt. Greg Van Patten said.

But Thunder was injured and ran off, still wearing a plastic medical cone his owners would later tell Humane Society staffers they used to keep him from chewing on himself, Executive Director Chuck Tourtillot said.

That was likely on or about Dec. 12, Van Patten said. The location in which the shooting occurred has not been revealed.

But for several days thereafter, the dog roamed on its own, finding his way around Jackson State Demonstration Forest, a nearly 49,000-acre mixed redwood forest extending east from Caspar roughly following Highway 20.

On Dec. 18, Tina Fabula, a senior wildlife biologist with Cal Fire, was out in the field when she saw the dog making its way down a forest road with two mushroom hunters in careful pursuit, slowly following Thunder in a vehicle, climbing out periodically to try to approach him, but making little headway with the skittish animal.

Fabula got in her vehicle and tried, as well, but the dog was threatening - growling and snapping whenever someone got near and “definitely in fear mode,” she said.

Thunder had an injured front left leg, large, bloodied gashes on his head and left side, and also a wound behind his left front leg.

He had a huge frame, but was emaciated. He would try to drink from puddles in the road, but the interference of the stiff plastic cone prevented him from lapping up more than a few drops, if anything, Fabula said.

He seemed disoriented, and his eyes were running with pus, so she wasn't even sure how well he could see. It appeared the cone had been on long enough for the flesh on his neck to grow around it, though that would later prove not to be the case.

“You could tell he wasn't going to last another 24 hours out there,” Fabula said.

Then she saw Liberty, who was out riding her horse, and told her about the dog. Liberty, who already has three rescue dogs and a miniature horse rescue at home, dismounted and began to walk alongside Thunder, talking softly under her breath and telling him it would be all right. Eventually, she reached out her hand, put it on his back and gave him a little “scritch.”

“He just melted,” Liberty said.

They sat on the logging road for a long time, and Thunder rested, while Liberty's husband, Lu, came out in the truck to pick them up. Another friend called ahead to the Mendocino Coast Humane Society in Fort Bragg, so they would be expected there by the vet. Two man who drove by at the right moment were on hand to help load Thunder onto the back seat, where he lay still, willingly accepting human help at last.

Thunder had been found miles from the nearest residence - 11 miles - and presented a complete mystery, Liberty said.

He had a microchip embedded under his skin, but it came back to an address in Fernley, Nevada, last registered in 2015 with a disconnected phone number.

Liberty uploaded his image and story to social media in hopes someone might recognize him, while sheriff's deputies looked for local information about the owners named in the microchip registration and found a cell number for them on the coast.

In the meantime, the veterinarian at the Mendocino Coast Humane Society had begun to treat Thunder's wounds and, in the process, discovered a bullet lodged in his leg, Tourtillot said.

No one is entirely sure about the dog's wounds, but it appears he was shot two or three times. One shot grazed his head, another perhaps went through his chest into his elbow, and perhaps a third ricocheted off his ribs, which may be the one that lodged in his leg, Tourtillot said.

When the owners came in to surrender the dog to the nonprofit, they said they had been out with the dog, he had run away and they'd been unable to find him, Tourtillot said. He didn't press them, because he did not want to scare them away without having relinquished control of the dog so he could be fully treated.

But under an investigator's questioning of the husband-and-wife owners, one admitted shooting the dog with a handgun in an effort to put it down, Van Patten said.

That unidentified individual has since recanted, however, though detectives still believe the couple is responsible, Van Patten said. Investigators last week submitted a felony animal cruelty case to the District Attorney's Office for review, Van Patten said.

Thunder was at one point transferred for five days to a Santa Rosa hospital for round-the-clock care and extensive testing that failed to turn up any chronic or terminal condition. All of the tests and much more were covered by donations that began flooding in the moment his story began getting out, making it possible for the small nonprofit to ensure he got every bit of care he needed, Tourtillot said.

The dog's celebrity status reaches across the county and onto several continents. He's been receiving all kinds of gifts - toys, blankets, beds, balls, and even an inflatable medical cone so that he doesn't need to wear a plastic one while he's sleeping or unsupervised.

Liberty has fostered him at her home, where he can remain isolated and quiet during his recovery. She has found him to be a sweet, playful, affectionate boy who needs some training but is ready to try with the right owner.

There is no shortage of people who have offered to be that person, but Tourtillot said he's approaching the adoption process very selectively because of the dog's special needs and preferences, which include an aversion to other dogs, a prolonged rehabilitation, gaps in its training and a need to have someone with abundant time to be attentive and at home while it adjusts after a trauma.

“I love him to pieces. I'd love to keep him, but I have three other dogs, and I miss them,” Liberty said.

Tourtillot said, “I'm just so encouraged because whatever he's gone through before, his experience with Davina shows that clearly he's still got a positive spirit to him. He has enough of a positive personality to where he's not totally damaged. I think we're really lucky that we could be part of his story and help him out. He's just a wonderful, wonderful animal.”

You can follow Thunder on Facebook at Thunder, The Wonder Dog: The Cone Dog From The Woods.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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