Leisa Bennett could not help but imagine the worst when her granddaughter Aurora Kyle went missing from their family home in rural Queensland. “You’re just thinking she’s out there somewhere in the dark, a three year-old-baby, it’s so disheartening,” she told local newspaper The Warwick Daily News on April 21, 2018. “Your mind goes to all sorts of dark places…”
The child disappeared from her family property in the Southern Downs in southeast Queensland – an area of rugged rural land punctuated by undulant hills and striking granite rock formations. Situated on the northwestern inclines of the Great Dividing Range, the Downs overlook several mountain chains that combine to form the so-called Scenic Rim.
Daily life in the region tends to be grounded in a wide range of agricultural activities, including livestock and dairy farming, crop growing and fruit cultivation. Windmill-powered water pumps are a common sight here, as are crop dusters. Meanwhile, fewer than half of the roads in the Downs are sealed.
But despite their bucolic charms, the Southern Downs are not necessarily a good place for casual wandering, particularly in the area around Bennett’s property. “The area around the house is quite mountainous and is very inhospitable terrain to go walking in,” said Ian Phipps, State Emergency Service (SES) area controller, to ABC News on April 21, 2018.
Located at Cherry Gully, 18 miles south of the town of Warwick, the property is the home of Bennett, her partner Kelly Benston and her granddaughter, Aurora. And at about 3 p.m. on Friday, April 20, 2018, the toddler apparently walked off and disappeared into the surrounding countryside.
But searches of nearby hills yielded no trace of the missing toddler and it soon grew dark and started to rain. Temperatures dropped to 57 °F, and with the whereabouts of Aurora unknown, speculation arose that she may have tumbled into the waters of a nearby dam.
But Bennett could not stop searching for her missing granddaughter. “We were standing here alone in the darkness knowing a three-year-old was out in the cold,” she said to ABC News. “It wasn’t a situation where we could go home and sleep in our warm blankets knowing she was out there.”
At dawn the next morning, a new search party was organized with 100 SES workers, volunteers and police. “The search was actually quite hard where the volunteers and the police were amongst the very steep slopes full of lantana and other vegetation,” said Phipps to ABC News.
Then, at about 8.00 a.m., Bennett was walking on her property about 1.2 miles from the house when she heard the voice of Aurora calling from a mountaintop. “When I heard her yell ‘Grammy’ I knew it was her,” she told ABC News. So she “shot up” the mountain. And when she got to the top, she was met by their family dog, Max, who then led Bennett straight to the missing girl.
“I think [Aurora] was a bit overwhelmed by the tears and the howling, but I explained to her how happy those tears were,” Bennett told ABC News. “It could have gone any of 100 ways, but she’s here, she’s alive, she’s well and it’s a great outcome for our family.”
“She was found off of Old Stanthorpe Rd,” wrote Benston on Facebook, describing Aurora’s rescue. “[She] went down a small valley and went up the face of a small mountain and camped there for the night… She’s ok… wasn’t even scared…”
“It was a great relief,” Aurora’s uncle, Jake Miller, told local newspaper The Courier-Mail. “Thankfully that old dog stayed the whole night with her. He didn’t leave her side.” Indeed, aside from a few scratches, Aurora was in good condition. And the family had old Max to thank for that.
In fact, Max is an Australian breed of dog known as a “blue heeler.” Historically bred for cattle herding – which the dogs accomplish by biting at the heels of steers – blue heelers are renowned for their intelligence, energy and trainability. But what makes Max so remarkable is that he is also 17 years old, deaf and partially blind.
Indeed, Inspector Craig Berry of Queensland Police appeared to be slightly surprised by the incident. “The child had been out in the elements all night with only the company of an elderly, blind, half-deaf dog,” he told ABC News. “So it was a positive outcome.”
And Phipps expressed similar sentiments. “With the weather last night it’s quite lucky she is well because it was… cold and rainy,” he said to ABC radio. “She’s a very hardy young lass to survive that without any ill effects and everyone, all the volunteers, are extremely happy.”
However, Max is by no means the first dog to have protected a vulnerable child from the elements. In May 2014, three-year-old Carson Urness wandered away from his rural home in North Dakota, sparking a massive search operation involving 200 volunteers, canine teams and a search plane.
He was eventually found nestled with his dog Cooper about a mile from his house in the cold and pouring rain. It was 2 a.m., and the dog was apparently shielding him. The child did not sustain any injuries during his escapade, but things might have turned out very differently were it not for Cooper.
However, as any responsible dog owner will attest, a well-treated dog will naturally express loyalty to its owners. As pack animals, they tend to bond with others, whether human or not. And according to “dog whisperer” César Millán, dogs derive such security and identity from their pack that they may experience a sense of loss when one of their members leaves.
Meanwhile, the Aboriginal people of the region deserve recognition too for helping locate Aurora. “I would really like to thank the traditional owners,” Bennett told The Courier-Mail. “The skills and the knowledge of the Aboriginal trackers who came out and helped us look for Aurora was incredible. That’s what helped us find her.”
Finally, Max himself has earned a special reward from the Queensland Police Department. “SUCH A GOOD BOY, MAX!” wrote the department on Twitter. “He stayed with his 3-year-old human who was lost near Warwick last night while we frantically searched for her. For keeping her safe, you’re now an honorary police dog.”