Dubai: When South African expat Michael Rudolph first became aware that his nearly-blind, four-year-old German Shepherd was missing in the pitch-black darkness of the open Dubai desert, he feared for the worst.
Rudolph and his family could barely see beyond their lit base camp south of the Outer Bypass Road in a sandy location known as Area 55 and knew their dog named Stevie, who is 80 per cent blind, would already be in a state of panic, unable to see or find his way back to his owners in the inky blackness of night.
The situation became worse as family members and Emirati friends fanned out into the night calling for Stevie but to no avail.
Rudolph’s daughter Caitlin, 20, who was visiting from South Africa, joined the search hoping to lure the dog back with the sound of her shaking a container full of Stevie’s favourite doggie treats.
“You can imagine in this dark environment, it was a crisis situation for all of us,” said Rudolph, who works as head of the Airspace Safety Section at Dubai Civil Aviation Authority.
The situation was more dire given that Stevie is a rescue dog and was formerly beaten and abused so badly by his former owners that the dog suffered brain damage and needs constant care. Stevie was rescued by an animal organisation called Sniff when he was four months old and was adopted by the Rudolph family.
“Due to his mass number of injuries sustained, he suffers from epilepsy and has a daily dose of controlled medication. Stevie is very set in his ways and chooses not to stray too far from familiar surroundings,” Rudolph told Gulf News. “On Thursday night, Stevie wandered a little too far, causing him to become unsettled and confused resulting in him running off in an unknown direction.”
The search was more complicated given that Stevie does “not respond when being called.”
After a fruitless ground search, Rudolph decided to call in some help from his friend Eduardo Dorado, a drone pilot at Exponent, a firm specialising in aerial drones.
“They were great, I asked them for a drone with a thermal camera so that we could spot Stevie’s heat source in the middle of the open desert,” Rudolph said.
It wasn’t long before Dorado and team were on scene and the Exponent drone buzzed into the sky equipped with its heat-sensing camera that measures warm bodies as red colour against the cooler desert floor.
After combing the desert for hours, a big red blotch appeared on the screen suggesting that Stevie had sauntered off into night and had eventually laid down in the sand nearly two kilometres away.
Drone footage provided by Exponent shows the moment Rudolph walked up to the exhausted dog and were reunited.
“When we found him, he was utterly exhausted,” said Rudolph, who estimated the dog was missing for about six hours in total.
Rudolph said “if it had not been for the thermal drone, I believe it would have been a lot longer, if not forever.”