'My Dog Was Missing For 5 Years, I Drove 1,000 Miles To Get Her Back'

When I was 19, I was hit by a car and became bedridden. I got depressed and just started eating, so I gained hundreds of pounds over several years. I was still really heavy and housebound when I got my dog Bruno, I was 23 and he was the only joy I had at the time. He was the only one who didn't judge me and didn't look at me funny because I was overweight. He loved me no matter what and he meant a lot to me.

I went on to rescue other dogs and I kept one who ended up passing away on January 6, 2016. That was the reason I went and got Azzura Diamante at the beginning of 2016, because Bruno was now by himself. Azzurra was eight weeks old when I got her, so she grew up with Bruno. That was all she knew; me and Bruno. She was my second joy and I lived for them both. I didn't really have friends then because I was so overweight, I couldn't really do anything. I couldn't even go to the movies because I was too fat for the seats, so my life just revolved around my dogs.

But I was only really present for the first few months after I got Azzurra, because then I was in the hospital. In April 2016, I was diagnosed with metastatic tongue and oropharyngeal cancer and at the end of July I had my tongue removed, so until the beginning of 2017, I was very unwell and in and out of hospital. Even when I was home from the hospital, I was sick in bed. Azzurra and Bruno were with me, but I was in a wheelchair and I had a lot of help. I had to have someone stay with me and take care of the dogs because I couldn't walk them or take them out. I could drive but someone had to push me in a wheelchair to the car and help me get in.

One day in late Spring of 2017, I drove to a gas station with Bruno and Azzurra. It was only half a mile from my house. I couldn't get out of the car, and I don't remember now if I met someone or someone was with me, but by the time I got back from the gas station, Azzurra was gone. I didn't know that she had hopped out of the car until I got back and went to get them out of the car.

I panicked then because she is a beautiful looking dog, she's a purebred Olde English Bulldogge with blue eyes. I just knew that someone was going to take her, and that's what must have happened. Someone must have grabbed her and not wanted to give her back.

Puppy Azzurra and Dog Bruno
Jen Costa's dog Azzurra (left) pictured as a puppy in 2016. Jen Costa

My friends put up flyers around town and we called the police, animal shelters and vets, but it was a dead end. We drove around looking for weeks, but I had a tracheotomy tube in my neck at the time from my cancer surgery, so I couldn't even talk. My friend had to ask people if they had seen Azzurra and show them a picture of her, but nobody knew anything, not even the people at the gas station. So that was it.

It's not that I stopped thinking about it, but at that point I felt that if someone found her and wanted to return her they would, and if they didn't, there was nothing I could do.

I thought about Azzurra all the time. I remember posting on Facebook saying, "I miss you, I hope you're OK out there, wherever you are." That was the mindset I had over the years. Every year memories of her would pop up on Facebook and I would think about her.

If I hadn't had Bruno and Azzurra at home, I'm not sure I would have made it through having cancer. They were everything to me, I saw them as my kids and the reason I had something to do.

I recovered and over time I also lost hundreds of pounds of the weight I had gained, but Bruno passed away in August 2021 from cancer; he ended up dying two weeks after I made it to my five-year cancer free mark. When I made it to five years cancer free, I remember saying to everybody: "Bruno is not doing well. I think he's been waiting until I make it to this point." After he died, I remember saying to him in my head: "Bruno, now that you're up in heaven, I hope that you can see that your sister is OK wherever she is out there." A few months later, I found Azzurra.

Dogs Bruno and Pancake Owned By Jen
Bruno (left) and Pancake (right) in 2021. Bruno died from cancer in August 2021. Jen Costa

On Monday, January 11, 2022 I was sitting in a chair at my barbers when I got an email on my phone. I looked quickly and then I had to look again because I thought I was seeing things. I saw Azzurra's name, and I hadn't seen it in years. The email said that my lost pet, Azzura Diamante, had been located and gave me a number to call.

I started crying. My barber had to give me a tissue and stop cutting my hair for a minute. Then I called them and they said they had her, but that they were in Henderson, Tennessee. It ended up being a 16 hour drive away.

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Azzurra must have run away from whoever she was with, but she ended up on someone's front porch. Luckily, it was a woman who is an animal advocate, and she posted about Azzurra on Facebook asking if anybody owned her. Someone responded to say that they owned her, but the woman apparently then said that Azzurra wasn't going back to them until she'd been spayed, because she appeared to have been overbred. At that point I'm told the owners said they didn't want her anymore. Azzurra was placed in a shelter in Henderson and when she was eventually taken to the vet to be spayed, they scanned her microchip and then animal control contacted me.

Incredibly, the dog that had been in the pen right next to Azzurra at the shelter where she was being kept in Henderson had been named Bruno, the woman from the shelter told me it was just the first name that came into her head, she didn't know anything about me at that point.

I left New York on the evening of Thursday, January 13 and I got to Henderson the next day. The woman from the shelter walked Azzurra out to my car and I think Azzurra saw my new puppy Pancake before she saw me; she got really excited, jumped right in the front and said hi to him. Then when she turned around, I think she realized who I was, because she kept giving me her paw and kissing my face. It's like she took up right where she left off. She stood up on the front seat and was ready to go, just like she used to. I had thought I would never see her again, so it was like I was dreaming. It felt like something out of a movie.

Jen Costa With French Bulldog Named Pancake
Jen Costa with her latest canine family member, Pancake the French Bulldog. Pancake was born in March 2021. Jen Costa

Unfortunately I cannot bring Azzurra home to New York as I do not have my own place. I've been homeless and living with my grandma for a few years and she doesn't want two dogs there. I'm hoping to raise money to get an RV I can live in with my dogs, as right now I've been staying in the car and in hotels. But I have a GPS tracking collar for Azzurra now, so if she runs away, I can locate her on a map on my phone. It would tell me exactly where she is.

My life has gone full circle. I've been through what I needed to go through—my accident, weight gain, cancer and weight loss and losing and finding Azzurra—to teach me the lessons that I needed to learn. I now try to help others understand that everybody goes through bad times, it's part of the story and it helps us grow into who we're meant to be. I hope that seeing me and Azzurra reunited after everything restores some faith. There's so much magic around us in life. I just hope my story and my journey can help others see life's beauty.

Jen Costa is from Queens Village, New York. You can connect with her on Facebook at Strong Heart Nation and find out more about her GoFundMe here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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