NEW YORK A silver minivan with a bright pink ribbon tied to its antenna travels north on the Van Wyck Expressway, the driver twisting her head to the left, then right and back left again, eagerly searching for a sign.
This is how Bonnie Folz drives now. The woman with a Scooby-Doo key chain, paw print steering wheel and doggie bobblehead on the dashboard can't run for a gallon of milk without scanning every inch of ground she can see.
Maybe this is the day it all ends. Maybe this is the day she gets back to her life, back to her husband and back to her own dogs. Maybe then she'll sleep through the night. Maybe then she'll come home from work, sit on her couch, turn on her TV and have the clock read something other than midnight.
"We just need to find that damn dog," Folz says. "I need my life back."
Seconds later, along the side of the highway, in the bushes, there's hope. Folz hits the brakes, sticks out her neck and squints. So, too, do the two other women in the back of the van.
"It can't be," Folz says. "This is too ea
"Nope," Rosa Chile interrupts. "That's just a trash bag. A white trash bag. That's not Vivi."
Vivi, formally named Champion Bohem C'est La Vie, is the 4-year-old whippet who disappeared from her crate at John F. Kennedy Airport last February, the day after she won an award of merit at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
One year later, as the dog world again gathers in Madison Square Garden for its Super Bowl, Vivi is still missing. In the past year, Vivi's owners and a group of volunteers have tried everything psychics, pet detectives, motion-detecting cameras, bionic ears and night vision monoculars to find the 35-pound whippet. Dog droppings were DNA tested to see if they match Vivi's parents. There's still a $5,000 reward.
Since last year's Westminster, 26 children in the state of New York have gone missing and not been found, according to the number of cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But it's this prize-winning California whippet that has captivated a city, lit up Internet message boards and kept dog fanatics all over the country awake at night fretting.
Even Vivi's owners are aghast at the efforts.
"It's almost embarrassing," Jil Walton says, "the lengths these incredible people have gone."
Sharon Choate of Marysville, Minn., can't go to bed at night without logging on to a Vivi blog and posting her nightly Vivi prayer. Barbara Jean Landsperg, who doesn't own a car, walks several miles each day even in winter to post fliers in Queens. Chile, who's 57 and has battled breast cancer since 2004, answers the 877-JFK-VIVI hotline. She has skipped chemotherapy treatments to follow leads.
They've never met this dog. They barely know its owners. But they can't help themselves. Maybe it's the nuance of the reverse fairy tale, a dog who seemingly had it all on a horse farm in Claremont, Calif., but found herself lost in the concrete jungle of Queens. Maybe it speaks to the undying love people have for animals and the bizarre lengths they will go to rescue them. Or maybe it says something about the never-ending human need to believe.
Whatever the case, these volunteers are desperately searching for a happy ending to this tale, whether reality says they'll get one or not.
"This dog has ruined me," Chile says. "I don't know how. I don't know why. It's like I'm from another world. But I will die before we don't find that dog. This is all I care about.
"If you offered me a million dollars, I'd rather find Vivi. It's just something very deep inside that motivates me each and every day."
Jil Walton was seated for her return flight to LAX that Wednesday morning last year when a flight attendant told her the dog crate she checked 90 minutes earlier was empty beneath the plane.
"I honestly didn't think much of it," Walton says. "I just figured I'd go down there, grab my dog and then hop on the next flight home."
Instead, she spent the rest of the day with Port Authority Police, combing the 4,900-acre airport. They told her they had chased Vivi down runway 4-L, once cornering the dog before she took off through a barbed wire fence into a marsh.
A Port Authority official in a wetsuit searched the marsh but found nothing. Vivi's co-owner Paul Lepiane helped get the word out to the media, but that didn't bring an immediate end to the case, either.
For the next eight days, Lepiane and Honi Reisman, a close friend and dog enthusiast from Long Island, searched every airport building. They brought in tracking dogs from Maryland, and summoned psychics and animal communicators.
"They'd say things like, 'I see her by a large piece of machinery,'" Reisman says. "Well no kidding it's the airport."
As the story gained attention, calls poured in. A woman said her husband worked for Delta and heard how poorly things were handled. She apologized. Another woman said she worked for the Port Authority and heard officers had shot Vivi the day she got loose, but no one had the heart to tell the owners. Another caller insisted the dog was on her way to France, wearing a miniature beret a sailor had bought for her.
"That had to be one of the favorites," Folz said.
There were endless suggestions for how to catch the dog. One volunteer recommended a JFK barbecue, insisting the smell of food would lure Vivi. Another suggested releasing horses at the airport because Vivi was so comfortable with them at home. Someone else thought they should station two people at every door at every building on airport property and let Walton call for the dog over an airport loudspeaker.
The problem, Vivi's owners say, is that contrary to the stereotype of a spoiled show dog, Vivi spent hours running loose on Walton's horse farm each day, chasing and sometimes eating squirrels and rabbits. She's a farm dog in pristine condition who knows how to survive and comes from a breed that turns feral more quickly than most. Each day it becomes tougher and tougher to catch her.
"God, if she had just been a couch potato, maybe she would have gone up to the first person and begged to be taken home and given some food," Lepiane said. "But it wasn't going to happen. Having said that, she could do this on her own. I'm not sure about a year, but I know she could do this."
It's a cold, crisp February night and a few hundred feet below the Whitestone Bridge, the only sound is the stream of cars overhead.
Folz, Chile and volunteer Tina Potter stroll Francis Lewis Park after a phone call that Vivi was seen here a day earlier. With treats and leashes, they walk circles around the park, looking for something, anything.
They don't call the dog's name. They just walk, listen and look. Dog prints dot the sand that meets the waters of the Long Island Sound, but it's determined they are too small to be Vivi's. A couple walking a Great Dane say they haven't seen the dog. A college-aged kid with heavy metal blasting through his headphones says the same.
"Pretty typical," Folz says.
She's been on this emotional ride for the past year, slamming on the brakes of her minivan while crisscrossing just about every park, cemetery and green area in Queens. One night she raced out of a Billy Joel concert because she got word of a sighting. Another day she drove down the Belt Parkway at 25 miles an hour, tears pouring down her cheeks, because of a dead dog in the road. It was a beagle.
Folz, a 41-year-old dog trainer from the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, got word of Vivi's disappearance the day it happened and by that night organized her first mini search outside the airport. The following Tuesday, she had 50 new volunteers. The following Saturday, nearly 100. The volunteers were given goodie bags with doggie treats, knotted yellow ropes tied as leashes, pink ribbons for their car antennas and black "Team Vivi" T-shirts.
"Team Vivi" searched by helicopter, boat, car and foot. On several Saturdays, volunteers passed out nearly 100,000 fliers in English, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Korean, Chinese and Italian. In the first weeks, Folz stood on corners Saturday from 7 a.m. to midnight, passed out fliers, pens, markers, tape and wore a neon pink sign around her neck: "LOST DOG LAST SEEN IN THIS AREA CALL IMMEDIATELY."
Still today, her minivan is littered with posters, business cards, pictures, fliers, magnets all covered with Vivi's picture and the toll-free hotline number. She carries a doggie lineup card for potential witnesses to identify which breed they've seen. And sitting on the van's console, covered with a yellow highlighter, is a spreadsheet with the 59 sightings she considers legitimate. They read like a police blotter:
• March 12, 2006, 12:00 a.m., 214th Street and 75th Avenue, Hollis Hills
Caller from apartment windows saw Vivi follow a man walking into apartment building.
• April 8, 2006, 1:15 a.m., Utopia Parkway and 46th Ave., Flushing
Saw outside of a bar running towards Utopia Parkway.
• Nov. 19, 2006, 2:20 a.m., 71st Street and Cooper Ave., Glendale
Saw sniffing at the fence line looking thin, wearing a collar.
"I would never in a million years think I'd be doing something like this," Folz says. "But it just sucks you in. It's absolutely engulfed my life. I'll never be the same.
"I realize people think I'm probably crazy. And to do this for as long as I have, they're probably right."
Nothing has been overlooked. When Rick Patterson, Jil's fiancé, found whippet-sized droppings in an area where tracking dogs had found Vivi's scent, the American Kennel Club analyzed the droppings to see if DNA matched Vivi's sire or dam, as part of the AKC's DNA Certification Program. It didn't.
The AKC did the test for free, but much of the search has been costly. A fundraiser by fellow whippet owner Brian Rosenberg at the Garden City Hotel in New York raised $10,000 for the search, but Reisman, Folz and everyone else involved declined to comment on the total amount of money raised or spent.
"It's embarrassing," Reisman says.
They've spent money on night monoculars so volunteers can see in dark parks and cemeteries, and motion-detecting cameras, which volunteers placed near food bins at sites where Vivi has reportedly appeared. Donations have paid for the telephone hotline, the fliers and gas. They've also covered bionic ears, a hearing tool that helps hunters pick up animal noises from a distance.
Yet some still think it isn't enough. Just recently, a volunteer contacted Reisman, who manages the Vivi fund, to talk about buying a $1,300 Webcam she wanted to install at a site where she thought the dog had been. Before Reisman could say no, the volunteer explained she had raised the money through connections on Newsday writer Denise Flaim's animal blog, which has been virtually hijacked by conversation of Vivi.
"At some point, it gets ridiculous," Reisman acknowledges. "I mean seriously, why don't we just get a heated tent? Why don't we go to Home Depot and buy a nice shed that she'll just walk right into? For the Webcam, I was ready to draw the line. But so many people are wrapped up in finding this dog, it didn't even matter."
Even though Vivi has not been found, the money hasn't been wasted. While looking for her, volunteers have helped rescue and place more than 60 other animals. Two weeks ago, "Team Vivi" rescued nine dogs caked in urine and feces after an animal hoarder had left them crated around the clock with no heat for two years.
"We could do a lot worse than have that be Vivi's legacy," Lepiane says. "I mean, look at all these other animals she has inadvertently helped these volunteers find."
Last month in Missouri, 41-year-old Michael Barczewski was thumbing his way through a pet adoption Web site when he found something he couldn't believe. His sister-in-law Noreen's golden retriever, Cujo, who had escaped her backyard in late 2000, was available for adoption.
Cujo had ended up 120 miles west in the home of an elderly woman in Columbia. When the woman entered a nursing home, the dog was sent to the Central Missouri Humane Society, put up for adoption and found by Barczewski.
Stories like that keep hope for Vivi alive. Vivi was microchipped, meaning if she pops up in a shelter she almost immediately would be identified. Almost once a week, someone on "Team Vivi" gets a call, e-mail or letter with a story like Cujo's, urging the volunteers to press on.
But reality says Vivi won't be found. The last time tracking dogs visited New York, in mid-November, they failed to pick up Vivi's scent. Karen Goin, a pet detective from Oklahoma, filed an unpopular report that said Vivi possibly contracted some sort of infection, based on sightings that said she looked "tired" and "sickly." Goin puts the odds of a happy ending to Vivi's story at "less than 10 percent."
"Having said that, I've never seen a search like this," Goin said. "Usually the volunteers wear out, but not these people."
Laura Totis, who trains and tracks dogs out of Maryland and helped with the Vivi search, is mystified. In a search of this magnitude, she said, with these resources, there should be an 80- to 90-percent likelihood of resolution.
"It's so unusual," she says. "They've had far and away more resources than any pet search I've ever seen. You would expect more results, but I guess there's always someone who breaks the curve."
Walton has gradually begun to move on. She simply can't continue experiencing the highs and lows of each sighting. After postponing her wedding for seven months in hopes that Vivi would be home, she finally married Patterson in November. She's also now the proud owner of a 5-month-old Jack Russell terrier mix named Lucy Brown.
"In general, I'm pretty low on the hope list," Walton says. "There just hasn't been anything concrete for so long."
When to pull away, when to give up hope, has become an individual decision. Though Walton and Lepiane feel indebted to the volunteers and would never say otherwise, some have suggested those close to Vivi wish everyone back East would begin to move on with their lives.
"But then again, how do you put this to sleep when it means so much to so many people?" Reisman said. "And who makes that decision? And even if you say no more, is it really going to stop? I'm not sure."
Folz, Chile and Potter sip coffee and soda at a Howard Beach Italian restaurant when that topic comes up. Chile acknowledges that yes, even if she was told to stop, she wouldn't.
Though her determination is admirable, it's also becoming rare among the volunteers. A group of 100 has dwindled to about a dozen active searchers.
Folz, the leader, is starting to crack herself, trying to turn more attention toward improving the way dogs are treated by the airlines.
"I just can't do this forever," she says. "This has been the worst emotional ride of my life. At some point, I have to begin to move on."
But she hasn't. Instead, she keeps waiting, thinking the next phone call or sighting will give her the closure she desperately seeks. The calls now trickle in, but they are leads no less. There are houses in Astoria, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island where people are convinced Vivi lives. There are plans to hire a private detective for a stakeout at one location to see if Vivi is there.
After pursuing those leads, Folz says she will again try to slowly pull herself away.
"In my heart, she's going to be found," Folz says. "But in my head, I don't think we'll ever know. I just don't."
The comment strikes a nerve with Chile.
"You know why you say that?" she asks. "Because you give up too fast, Bonnie. We're going to find that dog."
"It's been a year," Folz shoots back. "An entire year. Are you kidding me? Isn't that long enough?"
Chile again shakes her head in disgust. She's stubborn. Opinionated. And can't be persuaded. Since Vivi's disappearance, Chile has adopted her own whippet. The two searchers agree to disagree. For Vivi.
A week later, they're both back at it. There's been another sighting, this time in Forest Park by a former student in one of Folz's dog obedience classes. He believes he saw Vivi near the picnic area by the park's band shell while walking his dog one recent night.
Minutes after the call, on a night when temperatures drop to near zero, there they are, Bonnie, Rosa and the volunteers, with flashlights, peering behind bushes and between trees, trying to find a dog they've never even known.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.