Tatiana and Greg Ozhekim lovingly refer to their 3-year-old German shepherd, Bruin, as their flying squirrel dog — and they aren’t kidding.
The pup was given the moniker after surviving a 400-foot tumble off a cliff near his Stevenson Ranch home into a canyon, where he was lost for days before being located.
Bruin miraculously survived the fall and subsequent medical care — for internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, broken femur, torn gluteal muscles and staph infection — to be named the winner of the 2021 Hambone Award, a campaign presented by Nationwide, with which the Ozhekims insure their pets, that recognizes the most unusual pet insurance claim of the year.
Learning to fly
The Ozhekims rescued Bruin when he was a puppy, and while a sweet dog, Bruin was very scared and anxious, as he’d been severely abused.
It was his hesitancy to trust men, in particular, that got the better of him and ultimately led to his harrowing cliff dive on Feb. 17 when he escaped the yard after a strong wind blew the gate open.
“The pool man knows, ‘Do not chase the dog,’ because he’s going to run, so he’s calling me,” Tatiana recalled of the moment she learned of Bruin’s escape.
In his escape, Bruin took a path near the home, headed toward a nearby water tower where he and his family often go on walks, which Tatiana thought was no big deal, as he’s familiar with the area.
“So, I’m running up there in my socks and yelling because I see him galloping up,” Tatiana said. “As it turns out, the crew that maintains the water tower was up there — and they’re never up there.”
Tatiana saw Bruin run parallel to the fence surrounding the tower before disappearing from her line of sight, and though she didn’t know it at the time, it was then that Bruin fell — or maybe jumped — from the sheer cliffside as he tried to flee from the well-intentioned workers trying to catch him.
A search party materializes
Unsure of where Bruin went — as there was really nowhere he could go — Tatiana returned home for some shoes, pausing to put out a quick social media post about Bruin’s disappearance before continuing her search.
Within minutes, Tatiana received a call from Maria Davis Watt, who runs the Lost Pets of SCV Facebook group, and the search truly began.
Soon, the community had rallied around the Ozhekims’ search efforts, plastering flyers of Bruin on their behalf around the area, calling shelters and vets near and far, and touching base for daily updates.
“Bruin was missing for a total of four days, in which we and the community never gave up,” Tatiana said. “We hiked more than I have ever hiked from sun up to sundown, and volunteers kept going throughout the night by driving around the neighborhood and looking in hopes they would spot him.”
However, even with the search party and a drone scouring the area from above, Bruin remained missing for four long days.
Bruin’s will to live
In the midst of the search, Tatiana reconnected with Rebecca Kalyn, an old friend who reached out when she heard Bruin was missing, and it was her husband, Lt. Joe Kalyn, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, who the Ozhekims credit with ultimately finding Bruin.
Near the end of day four of the search, Kalyn went trekking into the heavy brush at the base of the canyon below the water tower. Following his instincts, Kalyn knew Bruin must be somewhere in the canyon — and he was right.
“He had his big heavy-duty shoes on, so he was walking maybe for 200 yards into the base of that cliff, yelling Bruin’s name,” Greg said. “And all of a sudden when he turned around, he saw Bruin on the road… In that condition, Bruin, who is normally fearful of men, crawled out of the heavy brush to Joe’s car and even crawled up onto the back seat.”
Bruin was rushed to ACCESS Specialty Animal Hospital in Woodland Hills, and the next few days were touch and go as doctors worked to stabilize him before he was transported to an orthopedic specialist at the hospital’s Culver City location.
Doctors told the Ozhekims that Bruin had probably been knocked out on impact, which is why he didn’t respond when they called, and that had he not been found, he probably would not have survived another night.
The Ozhekims spent the next few months nursing Bruin back to health, including through the initial surgery, a staph infection where the hardware in his leg was removed, and a follow-up surgery to replace the hardware.
‘Bonehead’ Award winner?
“We get a call from Nationwide, (who said), ‘Your dog’s been nominated for the Hambone Award.’ I’m like, ‘You mean bonehead,’” Tatiana said, jokingly, of Bruin’s nomination.
The award is meant to honor the veterinarians who administered exceptional care to Bruin, so while Bruin’s family received a Hambone Award trophy and gifts from Nationwide for winning, ACCESS was given a $10,000 donation through the Veterinary Care Foundation to help pay for care for pets in their community whose owners could otherwise not afford treatment.
“At Nationwide we’re all about ‘extraordinary care,’ and we’re always proud to recognize that in our country’s veterinary teams,” Dr. Jules Benson, chief veterinary officer for Nationwide, said in a prepared statement. “In Bruin’s case, the entire community showed extraordinary care in finding and helping this dog. I’m so pleased we could be a part of that effort, covering much of the expense through our pet health insurance.”
Though virtual, the award ceremony was actually the first time the Ozhekims had the chance to meet Bruin’s surgical team, due to COVID-19 protocols.
“You talk to them on the phone, but to see them all… I got all emotional,” Tatiana said.
Even after Bruin was found, the community continued to rally around him, so much so that Tatiana created a “Bruin’s Journey” Facebook group to keep everyone updated.
At each junction, the pieces were able to come together just right for Bruin to have survived, Tatiana said, noting that it was community support that the Ozhekims are overall most grateful for, thankful for their “time, kindness, concern, love, and support for Bruin and our family,” Tatiana said.
“Our post(s) were shared and cross shared to so many that we don’t know how to reach everyone to thank them,” Tatiana added. “As a Realtor of 11 years, I have worked in a lot of different communities, and I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like we experienced, and can attest that we really do live in Awesome Town.”
The experience was truly humbling and a life lesson for the family, Greg said, adding, “Miracles do happen, but they still require the hard work of kind, wonderful people supported by the positive thoughts of all of those around them — near and far.”