Pair of performers reunited after dog went missing in Venice
By Vince Echavaria
Johnny Mitchell never gave up hope that one day he would again be with his companion and fellow street performer – his dog Austin.
For years on the Venice Boardwalk, Mitchell and Austin were far beyond owner and pet, they were a street performing team, with the Pomeranian as the main attraction. With his hair cut into a lion-like mane, Austin became known as the Flyin’ Lion as he would spin through the air while Mitchell rode a skateboard and then land on his owner’s outstretched arm.
The two were quite the show on a boardwalk that has been home to a variety of unique performers and artists.
“The two of them are both born showmen, that’s the beauty of it,” said Venice resident Todd von Hoffman, noting that they were both recognized for sporting a signature mohawk. “They were so upbeat and happy to be out there interacting with folks on Ocean Front Walk. Everyone just adores them and it’s something that makes you smile.”
The duo was such a hit that Mitchell and Austin were called to perform at events such as the X Games and Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and they even got to pose for pictures with celebrities. But sadly, the companions were separated about a year and a half ago when Mitchell lost sight of the Flyin’ Lion near Windward Avenue in Venice.
Mitchell and a number of supporters initiated a dedicated search effort in the community and offered reward money, but Austin was nowhere in sight. Although more than a year and a half had passed without hearing a word about where his dog was, Mitchell kept believing that he would see Austin again.
“I always felt hope; I had no choice. You have to have hope that one day you’ll find him again,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who has relocated to Louisiana to help take care of his mother, finally got the call he was waiting for earlier this month from a veterinarian with the Companion Animal Medical Center in Visalia. When the caller identified herself, Mitchell recalled that he immediately asked with excitement, “Do you have my dog?”
The clinic representative explained that a woman who brought Austin in for a checkup said that her daughter found the dog. The vet then discovered that the pet had a microchip and called the company to get Mitchell’s phone number. Apparently, the daughter who found Austin without a collar in Venice brought him to live with her in Bakersfield before her mother began taking care of him, Mitchell was told.
The news left Mitchell with a whirlwind of feelings that made it difficult for him to sleep in anticipation of reuniting with his teammate. When the two were finally brought together again outside the Visalia animal clinic June 14, the moment took a little while to sink in for both man and dog.
“It’s hard to put into words because there’s so many emotions you’re feeling,” Mitchell said. “I was totally elated just to be reunited with him.”
Once the duo was able to have some time away from the cameras, it didn’t take long for Austin to recognize his old friend.
“I was petting him and scratching him in the way I know he likes, when he then turned around and looked at me, and that’s when the magic moment happened,” recalled Mitchell, adding that his Pomeranian is back to making his feel-good noises.
“In a huge way, we’re right back to where we left off.”
Though grateful to have his dog back, Mitchell noticed that the Flyin’ Lion had a different look than he remembered. Austin’s signature lion-mane hairstyle was cut and he put on some weight since his performing days, but Mitchell joked that he too, has seen changes since leaving Venice.
“We both left our beach bodies at the beach,” he quipped.
Mitchell described his bond with Austin, in which they were able to travel and put on shows together, as a “destiny-driven kind of thing,” which gave him confidence that Austin would not be lost for good.
“That’s why I just knew I was going to find him again because there was no way it could end like that,” he said.
Von Hoffman said the successful reunion is a testament to the technology that allows for pets to have microchips and the conscientious effort of veterinarians to scan for those identification chips when they learn pets have been found.
While it’s been over a year since Austin regularly performed on the boardwalk, Mitchell said the Flyin’ Lion is still well capable of doing the stunts, but the duo will likely not be out on a regular basis.
Their reunion and subsequent return to Venice Beach has been well-received by friends and visitors, Mitchell said.
“Everyone has been beyond thrilled and want to come up to him. Everybody missed us,” he said.
Mitchell and Austin will be welcomed back with a concert featuring the Fly N Lion band Thursday, June 21 at Danny’s Deli, and Mitchell has been selected as “king” for the Second Annual Neptune Festival celebrating the Summer Solstice Saturday, June 23. The two events will help raise funds to defray the traveling expenses for Mitchell.
Von Hoffman called the joyful reunion between Mitchell and the Flyin’ Lion “an incredibly heartwarming story,” saying it has been a cause of celebration for the whole town.
“Talk about a great Father’s Day gift – because Austin is his son,” von Hoffman said.