NEW YORK – In the nine months since escaping her travel cage at Kennedy Airport, Vivi the wayward whippet has joined the Central Park coyote, high-rise tiger, Harlem Meer caiman and Molly the fugitive feline in New York's ever-growing pantheon of urban animal legends. She was reported dozens of times, roaming cemeteries with other dogs, or hanging around stores in the borough of Queens, in some cases miles from the tarmac where she disappeared while awaiting a flight home to California on Feb. 15. A day earlier, she had won an Award of Merit at the annual Westminster Kennel Club show.
Owners Jil Walton and Paul Lepiane offered a reward for Vivi's return but have kept a low profile. This week, their lawyer, Joyce Randazzo, said they still hope to recover the sleek, 4-year-old brindle and white whippet, formally known as Champion Bohem C'est la Vie, and the reward, an unspecified amount, still stands.
According to a map published Nov. 18 by The New York Times, Vivi was reported at more than 45 different locations before Aug. 7, when the sightings suddenly stopped, raising fears that she might be dead or left the area.
Richard Gentles, director of administration for Animal Care & Control of New York City, said his organization dispatched rescue teams after "five or six calls" on Vivi in the past several months, but all proved negative.
"For a dog like that to be able to survive this long would be very difficult unless somebody picked it up," Gentles said. "I hope it's true that somebody has the dog and doesn't recognize it. It does happen."
On Wednesday, a volunteer group that devotes itself to finding Vivi reported a new lead: an anonymous caller who had seen her neighbor with a dog that resembled the elusive canine.
"She said he takes it to work every day. We asked if it was a greyhound and she said `No, it's a whippet,'" said Rosa Chile, who answers calls at a toll-free number. "She sounded very legitimate, but she was afraid."
Chile said the area of the purported sighting was being watched, but would not give other details, even where it is — other than "a few minutes from Kennedy airport."
Bonnie Folz, a professional dog trainer who lives near the airport and has led the search effort for Vivi, said she did not think the dog is still roaming free, and unless she met with misfortune, is in someone's custody.
"I really think somebody has her and that person can't keep the dog under wraps forever," she said.
Folz is conducting an overall review of the Vivi search with Karen Goin, a pet detective who uses her three trained dogs to track missing pets. They recently used a coat once worn by Vivi to check out a report in the Rego Park section of Queens, but the dogs did not find her scent, Folz said.
Recovered or not, Vivi already has joined the colorful list of animals occupying niches as urban legends in Gotham, says Steve Zeitlin, the director of City Lore, a center for the study of such things.
Just two months after Vivi vanished into a wildlife area adjoining JFK, a cat named Molly became trapped inside a wall of a delicatessen in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where she earned her keep as a mouser. It took two weeks to extricate the feline without damaging the landmark building.
Other incidents in recent years involved a full-grown tiger living in a Manhattan apartment, an alligator-like caiman that was recovered from the Harlem Meer pond in Central Park and a truly wily coyote that led police and animal experts on a chase through the park before it was captured.
Zeitlin noted that the frequent reports of Vivi in cemeteries enhances a "ghostly" image, made to order for urban lore.
"I believe the dog has already made it," Zeitlin said. "The sense of an urban legend is something that comes out of daily life or ordinary circumstances and has the stuff of fiction in it, something that is always about to be proved true.
"With this dog, it is always a sighting that can't quite be confirmed."Click here for more Afghanistan news.