Even when the ground had given way and Brandon McMillan was left clinging to a shrub on the side of the cliff below Palisades Park in Santa Monica, the only thing he was concerned about was the safety of his dog, Pepe.
As it turned out, McMillan didn’t have to worry after all.
Pepe, an eight-year-old Jack Russell terrier, was okay, and McMillan soon would be — that is, after firefighters came to rescue him from the cliff.
McMillan, 29, an animal trainer from Westwood, had gotten stuck on the bluffs after he attempted to rescue Pepe, who had gone over the edge of the park while chasing a squirrel Tuesday afternoon, May 16th.
Pepe had somehow safely made it down to the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), where he was picked up by a passing motorist. But little did McMillan know what had happened to his dog until he got a tip from a witness, at which point he began an extensive search effort in the hope of locating Pepe.
The next day, he got the good news from a Pacific Palisades animal hospital that Pepe was just fine, but what ended up being only a night away from his dog gave McMillan quite a scare.
“We’re both doing great,” McMillan said after his joyful reunion with Pepe. “I’m just pleased to have my boy back. That’s all I wanted.”
The owner and dog were separated from each other Tuesday, May 16th, when McMillan took Pepe out for a walk at the scenic Palisades Park, in the area near Ocean Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Pepe, who has appeared in numerous television commercials and the movie I Am Sam, saw a squirrel and began barking. He pulled away from his owner, snapping his collar off, and darted after the squirrel near the edge of the cliff, which descends steeply to PCH, and McMillan lost sight of the dog.
McMillan began calling Pepe’s name but the dog did not show, causing McMillan to assume Pepe lost his footing and went over the edge and down the park bluffs.
“He’s extremely well trained and he comes back every time,” McMillan said.
When McMillan looked over the edge he didn’t see his dog, so he thought Pepe might have gotten stuck in one of the holes on the cliff.
After driving down to Pacific Coast Highway at the bottom of the cliff, McMillan decided to climb up the cliff to try to locate Pepe. But once McMillan made it up the cliff to about 20 feet from the top, the ground gave way and he was forced to hang on to a shrub.
Even though McMillan was in a predicament of his own, he said he was still concerned about the condition of Pepe and where he might have gone.
“The entire time, the only thing going through my mind was, ‘Is my dog safe?'” McMillan said.
The thought that Pepe might have fallen down to PCH didn’t cross McMillan’s mind because that would have more than likely meant that Pepe would be dead, he said.
“That drop would kill anything,” he said.
Santa Monica firefighters were alerted to the situation and rescued McMillan from the steep cliff.
Someone later told McMillan that he saw Pepe get picked up by a woman driving a green sport utility vehicle. The news gave McMillan some hope that his dog was alive, but he remained uncertain as to whether Pepe was injured in the fall.
“I was relieved at that point to know that he was still alive, but I was worried that he may be hurt,” he said.
Not knowing where the SUV with Pepe had headed, McMillan said he got an “army” of close to 1,000 people to help with the search for Pepe, an effort that reached local television news stations.
Search volunteers put up fliers about Pepe throughout Santa Monica and the surrounding areas of Palisades, Brentwood and Malibu.
McMillan said he remained hopeful but there was still some doubt about Pepe’s condition.
That all changed after the driver of the SUV, Jenny-Lyn Marais, who picked up Pepe off the busy PCH, took the dog to the Blue Cross Pet Hospital in Pacific Palisades, where he was cleaned up after it was determined that he was in good condition.
“He was a little dirty and shaken up but he was really sweet,” said Sandra Mueller, Blue Cross Pet Hospital manager. “He was checked out and seemed to be just fine. We gave him a bath.”
The next day, Wednesday, May 17th, Alison Klossner, an animal rescue volunteer, came into the hospital to distribute a flier about Pepe.
“She asked if she could post the flier, but I said there was no need because we have him in the back,” said Mueller, adding that she had no idea the search had made TV news.
Hospital employees contacted McMillan with the news and all he wanted to know was if Pepe was all right.
“The first thing I asked was, “Is he okay?'” McMillan said. “They said he’s fine, he’s just really dirty.”
So, a day after McMillan lost sight of Pepe, the two were back together in an emotional reunion at the animal hospital.
“It was very amusing,” Mueller said of the reunion. “(Pepe) was very happy to see his owner.”
McMillan compared the reunion with Pepe to what it must be like to win the lottery.
“I got my boy back safe, sound and clean,” he said. “It felt like I had an SUV just lifted off me.”
For Pepe, the news about the story has only brought him more attention, but as a movie dog, he’s in his “element” when he’s in front of cameras, McMillan said.
“He’s been exposed to a lot of stuff his whole life,” McMillan said. “He’s used to cameras being in his face, but it’s usually for film, not broadcast news.”
But while Pepe may not fully be aware of the magnitude of what he went through, McMillan realizes how lucky they both are to be back together.
“Not many stories like this have happy endings,” he said. “I’m just glad to be one of those stories that does.”