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Facebook frenzy swirls over lost dog on Shirley estate

This dog, seen on July 12, 2015 and

This dog, seen on July 12, 2015 and who appears on the Facebook page Help Rescue Bear, has been spotted roaming a 135-acre estate in Shirley. Credit: Facebook

This is the tale of a stray dog with a Facebook rescue page, a legion of fans convinced he has been sick and roaming for three months on a 135-acre Shirley estate, and a campaign that put public officials and the estate's owners in the bull's-eye.

In the past week, there have been SPCA investigators in hazmat suits, a family popping up to say the dog was their pet, and an update from a mediator -- the Suffolk County executive -- to the pooch's 1,600-plus Facebook friends.

Hopes were high last Thursday when, armed with a borrowed net gun, officials from the Suffolk County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Brookhaven Town animal shelter searched the woods of Manor of St. George, a 17th century estate preserved as a free museum.

On that hot day, SPCA volunteers in head-to-sole protective suits went one way, and two shelter employees the other, combing the woods along the fence line.

What searchers found were chewed antlers, bones that may have once been a raccoon, moldy dog food and more than six dog-sized holes cut into the fence.

No dog.

Just ticks, including one on the ear of SPCA chief Roy Gross.

"It was like three fat men in the woods," Gross half joked, referring to a reality survival show on the Weather Channel.

The fruitless search highlighted the bark of social media, which pressed for action from the SPCA, which doesn't handle strays; the town animal shelter, which didn't see the dog as a stray because it was on private land; and the property owners, reluctant to open the grounds to a massive search.

In the latest development, a family who lives nearby, across the William Floyd Parkway, came forward last Wednesday, saying they'd been looking for their dog Sneakers, who had run off three months ago.

The saga began in early May when Anita Caruso read online chatter about a tan-colored dog roaming in and out of the estate. On May 31, Caruso launched a Facebook page to "Free the Trapped Dog at St. George." Pictures of the dog were posted, a canine with floppy ears.

It set off a frenzy of input. Some suggested bringing bolt cutters to break in.

"He's voiceless," said Caruso, 37, of Shirley, who has rescued dogs before. "He doesn't know how to get out and he needed help."

In her spare hours, she had looked for the dog along the estate fence line and watched the dog traps with an SPCA volunteer or another dog rescuer.

They came close to getting him a few times. Early on, he went into a dog trap, but it was too small and the door smacked his rear end, Caruso said her dog rescue partner told her. The hound wiggled out, never to go back in a trap again, despite various bait food, from hot dogs and chicken to liverwurst and bloody steak.

Bags of dog cookies later, Caruso got close enough to stick a piece of jerky treat through the fence. He ate from her hand.

"I was like 'Oh my God, you're so gentle,' " Caruso said.

Soon, the dog had a name: Bear, because he lives in the woods.

He got hashtags, too:

#BearsArmy, #Unbearable, #ItsAllAboutBear.

Last week, County Executive Steve Bellone was hit with about 30 Facebook messages or calls and at least one visit.

Bellone's office contacted the owner-trustees in Tennessee, and last Wednesday, his Facebook message said the dog's owners had come forward and also that the estate owners had approved a search.

"In these types of situations, everyone has the right intentions, but folks don't always see eye to eye," said Bellone spokesman Justin Meyers.

Privately, some officials involved have said the matter has driven them nuts, and others aren't shy about blasting the Facebook group.

When an SPCA member tried to get Caruso into the estate to help search Thursday, property manager Robert DeVito threatened to keep the estate gate shut and told her she would "never, ever" get in because she was part of the Facebook "farce."

"I'm usually a very nice guy," DeVito said, "but they got me going.

"This is so out of control."

On museum days, some visitors come in to fling criticism at his wife, Jeanne, a tour guide, over the stray, he said, and one rescuer illegally entered the property and set up cameras to find the dog.

In a Facebook entry that angers him, a map shows a route to get into the property -- along the beach fronting the Great South Bay: "If anyone is willing to illegally enter the private part of the manor and risk getting arrested, this is the path . . . If caretakers see you and police come, show them these pictures and say you are trying to save a life and maybe they won't arrest you."

Last week, the dog's owners said a friend signed an online petition pushing for a search and that's how they learned it was their Sneakers, said the woman whose family adopted Sneakers four years ago.

Authorities believe Bear and Sneakers are the same.

Sneakers had been found in the woods of South Carolina, where he had been abused before the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons took him and adopted him out, according to the SPCA.

The woman who owns the dog said he still fears people, and that she has a plan, which she won't divulge, to rescue him in the woods.

"He's in his comfort zone, and that's the problem," said Sneakers' owner, who asked not to be named because people have been calling her, including from out of state, after seeing the Facebook page.

"We've been looking for him since the day he left . . . ," she said. "That dog is too afraid to go across the road, and I have no idea what happened."

Sneakers' owners searched the grounds for him twice last week and can return any time, said Judith Furman, who, along with husband, George, are the manor's two owner-trustees.

But the police-style search and rescue that Gross had in mind -- 20 volunteers almost shoulder to shoulder -- won't be possible.

"We love animals as well," Furman said. But, she said, "we don't really want to have lots of people in there all over the manor. That would be just too much for us to keep up with."

Gross does not understand.

"It's like running around in circles," he said. "We're in there with the danger of ticks and everything else -- don't tie my hands."

As the war of words continue on both sides of the fence and even on the Facebook page, authorities believe the dog may have left the estate.

He was last seen July 1 by Caruso, who thinks he is still there and will still spend time and money to find him.

"As long as we don't quit," she said, "I know we're going to get him."

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