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Missing hiker found with cat in New Mexico forest

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March 7, 2012: This image provided by David Kuthe shows missing hiker Margaret Page being rescued inside the Gila National Forest, N.M. (AP)

Snuggling in a blue sleeping bag, Margaret Page and her cat survived 3 1/2 weeks in a rugged New Mexico national forest, even though temperatures dropped below freezing nearly every night.

Family members reported her missing Feb 14. But for various reasons, authorities didn't start searching for her until this week. The 41-year-old Page, who has a history of mental illness, was found Wednesday emaciated and malnourished but well-hydrated.

Relying on a creek for drinking water, Page and her cat named Miya lived on just a handful of supplies, rescue workers said Friday. The nearest town -- tiny Dusty, N.M. -- was 10 miles away.

"Her cat was in better shape than she was," said Marc Levesque, New Mexico State Police Search and Rescue incident commander. "Her cat was also hunting. (Page) ran out of food a while back."

Page apparently purposefully hiked off a trail between Feb. 10 and Feb. 12. A Forest Service law enforcement agent spotted her silver Chevy passenger car on Feb. 12, but didn't think much of it because hikers leave vehicles near trails all the time, said Lt. Robert McDonald, a spokesman for the state police.

Another Forest Service agent noticed the car on Feb. 25 but didn't contact state police until 10 days later. Members of the Grant County Search and Rescue and other crews began the search for Page on Tuesday after her family notified state police that Page's car had been found at a campground.

She was found the following day about a mile up the Railroad Canyon Trail in an area known as the Black Range.

The area had seen average highs reach around 60 degrees with evening lows in the 20s. It didn't see much rain or snow, but there were some high winds.

Authorities don't believe Page intended to stay in the forest for as long as she did when she first set up camp, and they aren't sure what she ate after she ran out of food.

"She is an experienced backpacker," search crew leader Dave Kuthe said. "She had adequate shoes...she just took a bag of pretzels with her."

Also, Page's car was towed as crews began their search mission -- something Robert Matulich, a field certified member of the Dona Ana County Search and Rescue team, said was unusual. Crews sometime use vehicles to give the search dogs a scent to use, he said.

"It looks to me like somebody dropped the ball on this one," Matulich told the Silver City Sun-News. "Why'd they tow the truck? Who towed the truck?"

Levesque said by the time Page arrived at Gila Regional Medical Center she was alert and articulate, even though she had lost about 20 to 25 pounds during the ordeal.

She checked herself out late Wednesday and spent the night in a Silver City hotel. And she's been reunited with her cat.

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