Photo by Michelle Lawson

How Social Media Saved My Pup

My world, my words

Wednesday, April 20 began uneventfully, as most momentous days do. I remember biking across New York's Manhattan Bridge and admiring the sun on the water that morning, unaware that in a few short hours, I was in for one of the worst experiences of my life.

I’ve known my dog, Esteban, since the day he was born. It was the windiest night of Hurricane Sandy, the giant glass windows of my Brooklyn apartment building bending and buckling with each gust when my neighbor’s Chihuahua gave birth to a surprise litter. That was the first time I laid eyes on him. I never planned on owning a pet as long as I lived in New York, but Esteban quickly claimed me as his human. It wasn’t really up to me—little dude was determined. Since then, I’ve become a full-blown dog owner.

Esteban is silvery gray with tiny white socks. He weighs three pounds and is loving, gentle, and sweet. His size allows me to take him with me everywhere, so we share all of our adventures—he has become, in effect, an extension of me; a friend once described us as one soul split between two bodies. Suffice it to say, I never imagined a life without Esteban because it was unfathomable to lose a piece of myself.

On the evening of the 20th, I arrived home in Bed-Stuy and noticed that Esteban was out of food, so I decided to take him for a quick walk to the market at the end of our block. I tied him up outside of the door—as all New Yorkers do—in the same spot with the same knot that I had used countless times over the years. I cruised in and out of the store in just a few minutes. I stepped outside, walked the two feet from the door to where I left him, and stopped short—my jaw literally dropped and I felt a lurch in the pit of my stomach that words can’t even describe.

He was gone. Not hiding behind anything. Not loose and dragging his leash along the nearby piles of trash. Not up or down any of the streets in which I spent the next hour searching for him. I called for him; I cried for him; I desperately asked strangers if they’d seen him. Eventually, I just sat down in the middle of the sidewalk as I was hit with the reality of his disappearance, and the likeliness that he was purposefully taken. I emailed my supervisors at work to let them know I was going to be late the next day so I could put up fliers in the morning. Then, I posted a photo of Esteban to my Instagram account to let my online community know what had happened.

The response was overwhelming. Moments after posting, a friend sent me a text with detailed directions on how to make a “Lost Dog” flier. Another text came in advising me to file a police report. I went out two more times to try finding him, asking clerks from the store if they had outdoor security cameras and workers from nearby businesses if they’d seen anything, but to no avail. I called 311 and two officers arrived at my door to take my report, confirming that Esteban was most likely stolen, and left me with some more suggestions. I added details to my flier, posted it to my Instagram, and I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to my phone, email, and Instagram profile overflowing with messages and advice. People had posted to their own social media accounts (one of my supervisors even posted the flier on Reddit), and I felt really grateful that people were spreading the word. Throughout the day I watched the reach explode; my devastation was matched by my awe, as the care of so many became evident.

Over the next few days, I continued to use every resource I could: lost pet alerts, shelter databases, Craigslist, under both “Lost and Found” and “Wanted” (my friends and I posted fake ads to try and buy him back if he was being sold). I was beginning to get Instagram comments from shelters in the area, offering more suggestions for actions to take and promising to contact me should Esteban make it their way. A friend called vets’ offices and explained what happened. Another friend, Monika, used her access to large-scale printing to pop off a giant batch of the flier and helped get crews together to post them.

My supervisor connected me with a friend of his who’d gone through a similar experience, and she gave me the contact info for a “pet detective” who had been integral in her eventual reunion with her stolen pup. The pet detective offered me new tips, like changing my flier to say “stolen” instead of “lost,” and reaching out to news networks. She told me to make the posters a bright color and put up at least six at a time, so Monika printed hundreds of neon pink fliers for me. I posted the new flier to my Instagram and created an Imgur link for it so people could download and print or post it. One of the doctors at the Williamsburg CityMD even posted the flier along the route that she takes when she walks her dog. (Later, she sent me a message saying that North Brooklyn was plastered in pink.) Esteban’s return had become a full-blown campaign. He even had his own hashtags, like #SearchingForEsteban, #BringEstebanHome, and #WhereIsEsteban.

As the days went on, I had begun to receive really awful prank calls from teenagers saying that they had my dog, and then start laughing and hanging up on me when I asked for more details. Those felt terrible, but for every one of those calls I got, there were two or three messages from people who had either seen the flier on a friend’s social media profile or posted somewhere. They let me know that they had been through this too, and to stay the course because, after months, their animals were found.

In the midst of all this, I had to take a trip out of town that had been scheduled before all of this mess, and during that time, my friends and their friends rallied, printing fliers and posting them all over. I returned home to an abundance of posts with Esteban’s image, and remarks from my friends like, “I was on a shoot and everyone there knew about Esteban” and “People are Snapchatting and tweeting Esteban’s flier!” At this point, it had been two weeks since he was taken, so it was good to hear that his search still had legs. Right when I was beginning to fear that I’d need to accept his absence, I resolved that I would keep searching.

Fast-forward to May 5. I was starting to get used to feeling quietly empty and sad but somehow making it through the day. My team at work continued to provide endless encouragement and support, and I decided to join a few of them for lunch that day. The sun was out. It was refreshing. I felt a renewed sense of joy that I couldn’t explain. When I returned to my desk, where I’d left my phone charging, I had three missed calls from a close friend, Topher, and a text from him that said, “Check your email IMMEDIATELY.” He’d forwarded me a message he’d received the week Esteban went missing, which he didn't see until that day because of Facebook’s inconvenient "Other" inbox. Friends of his who'd seen the flier on his Facebook wall told him that they'd seen Esteban with a woman in my neighborhood. They felt something was amiss when she couldn’t answer any general questions about the dog. They tried to take him with them, which she did not allow, but she did give them a number to call if they wanted to “get the dog.” They suggested I have someone call the number and pretend to want to buy him.

I immediately went into action mode. I asked my mother to call and pose as a potential buyer. The woman requested $450 and said to meet on the corner of 148th Street and 8th Avenue at 6:30pm. She wrote back a bit later to inquire how my mother got her number and seemed to be backing out of the deal, so my mother assured her that her daughter was on her way with the money.

I knew better than to try this on my own, so I posted again on IG asking if anyone “tall and intimidating” could head uptown with me. One friend, Astrid, was happy to offer support, despite being neither tall nor intimidating. Eli, a friend who met those requirements better, said he was already on 125th Street, and that we could all go together. I called the precinct I’d filed my report with and asked how to proceed. They suggested arriving earlier than the meet time and calling 911 to request police backup. When I called, I explained the situation and asked for plainclothes detectives, so as to not scare away this person when she turned up. The detectives arrived and drove us to the location, walked us through the plan of action they felt would be best, and we all staked out.

Astrid and I waited on the designated corner. She saw two women crossing the street with a dog, and I confirmed that it was indeed Esteban. I told Astrid I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe these women weren’t the ones that stole him, and wanted to offer them the chance to do the “right” thing, rather than have them arrested. Then, I composed myself and put on my acting pants.

I greeted both women, gushing over what cute dog they had, and asked to hold him. He was going nuts and when I got him into my arms, licking my face wildly. It was then that I explained to the women that he was a stolen dog—mine, in fact. One woman started yelling at me and tried to get him back by pulling on his leash. He cried out, and I unhooked his harness and stepped away. Scuffling ensued, and the detectives intervened.

I don't remember all of the details beyond that point because of my shock and hysterical tears—I finally had Esteban back. A detective assured me I didn’t have to give the women anything, but I offered them $50 and left with the police. When I got in the car, I lost it and thanked the detectives profusely. I even ended up hugging them goodbye when they dropped us at the train.

Esteban has been home for more than a week now. He returned unharmed and seemed well taken care of. I'm grateful for that the most. He was restless and anxious the first few nights, but we’ve begun to find our stride again. I had a picnic last weekend to offer people the opportunity to meet the life they’d put so much energy into finding. It was a sweet gathering, and friends, new and old, got a chance to know the love I do daily.

My gratitude toward all who contributed to this possibility is overwhelming. Social media has the ability to do so much harm, but I witnessed firsthand the tremendous potential for good that it also holds. Like all things, the intention is what creates the outcome and, for the most part, I experienced the best of intentions. I’d like to personally thank Monika Kaminiski, Karen Vaden, Darren Will, Cassie Magzamen, Gina Gregorio, Leila Brillson, Ryland McIntyre, Stephanie Peterson, Kelsey Lu, Astrid Elizabeth, and Eli Burk for all of your support, guidance, energy, and effort. (And shout-out to the care and compassion that was offered by the officers of the NYPD.)

Thank you to every friend and friend’s friend who posted and taped and tweeted and texted and emailed and called everywhere to spread this news. I literally would not have him back without all of you.