How social media saved a West Columbia stray dog

02/03/2013 12:00 AM

09/23/2013 11:50 AM

In an age when privacy melts away with each picture upload and status update, life’s simple acts broadcast over the web can touch a worldwide audience.

How else could a stray dog who lived for years in the woods between a Sonic and a Waffle House in West Columbia gain fans from Europe and Asia, and turn the University of South Carolina webmaster who adopted the mutt into an Internet celebrity?

Shaggy, a 6- or 7-year-old light-haired dog with a long nose and dark soulful eyes, was saved by social media. Her rescue was coordinated on Facebook, promoted on Ustream and feted on Twitter and YouTube.

A tire store employee, Manuela Schafer, was frustrated in her attempts to capture Shaggy for years and asked for help in late December from a California animal rescuer, Eldad Hagar, who has 82,000 Facebook followers.

“She had been terrified, chased and hurt,” Schafer said of Shaggy.

After Hagar’s advice to Schafer – to lure the dog with food – failed, the animal rescuer traveled cross-country two weeks ago and put out a call on Facebook for 40 volunteers to help collar Shaggy.

People came from as far away as Raleigh – more than three hours away from West Columbia – to gather at dawn on the chilly morning on Jan. 20 to help a stray dog on Platts Spring Road.

“Eldad is a hero of mine,” said Angela Hardin, a mother of two from Gastonia, N.C., who came to South Carolina with her 12-year-old daughter. “When he said he was coming to the Carolinas, I had to go. We had no idea what they wanted us to do, but if I had to crawl through whatever, I would have done it.”

The hunt took two hours and was one of the toughest in Hagar’s nearly five years of rescuing animals because of the heavily wooded terrain.

Another problem: Shaggy’s matted fur was so thick that the needle on a tranquilizer dart did not reach her skin, Hagar said. So volunteers created a long wall with $800 in tarp to keep the dog from escaping while Hagar cornered Shaggy.

Schafer finally was able to pet the stray that she followed for years. “She was pitiful,” she said. “I just cried.”

After getting her out of the woods, Hagar aired daily live streaming online videos of Shaggy from his Lexington County hotel room, providing updates on her condition and answering viewers’ questions. Thousands of people worldwide watched the dog’s first days of recovery after years in the wild.

“She was sleeping like 90 percent of the time,” Hagar said.

One of those early-morning volunteers, a follower of Hagar on Facebook for six months, fell in love with Shaggy after watching the videos. Her adoption interview, in the hotel room with dog and rescuer a week ago, was captured on Shaggy’s live online feed so people learned her name.

Patty Hall became a hero to Shaggy’s fans.

‘Everybody’s dog’

Since the adoption last weekend, hundreds of people – from the Southeast United States to Southeast Asia – have asked to become Hall’s Facebook friend. Many sent emails with congratulations and shared their pet-rescue stories.

“I was in situations where I rescued dogs from the streets and took them to shelters. Then, I started following Shaggy, and I could not stop watching,” wrote a man from Albania. “Whenever I see a stray dog ... I now remember Shaggy Ann. Eldad did a great job and you are guaranteeing that this work continues. Please give her a kiss from me!”

Hall, a webmaster at USC who describes herself as an introvert, is grateful but a bit taken aback about going from one of many Internet fans to a center of attention.

“At first, she was reluctant with all these people around wanting to talk to her,” Hagar said.

People asked for updates on Shaggy, who must overcome heartworms, a broken tail and a herniated diaphragm, likely from getting hit by a car, as well as learning to be around people again. But Hall wanted to separate life with her new dog from her personal life.

She started sharing photos of the dog on one of two Shaggy Facebook fan pages others had created. The week-old page has received nearly 4,000 likes. Hall started a YouTube page for Shaggy to post videos. .

Hall couldn’t escape the mania even in picking a veterinarian. A nurse at a Columbia practice exclaimed this week, “I was hoping we would get Shaggy!” when she learned the famous dog was going to be a patient.

Dozens of fans offered tricks for giving Shaggy heartworm pills in response to Hall’s Facebook post about the dog’s vet visit Friday. The post generated nearly 250 comments and more than 700 likes in 12 hours.

Hall has grown more comfortable with the attention, interacting with Shaggy’s fans by asking questions and replying to some of their comments and many of their emails.

“Yes, she’s my dog, but I feel like it’s everyone’s dog,” Hall said. “So many of these people have invested their money and their time. One person said they didn’t clean their house for three days because they were watching the videos. That’s why I don’t resent their interest.”

‘Saved a lot more dogs’

Hall does not know how long she will keep updating fans about Shaggy. (“Being a celebrity is hard work,” she joked.) But she has no immediate plans to stop.

Still, she adds, “There will be another dog of the month.”

Shaggy hit a sweet spot for an Internet sensation – the emotion of a dog rescue with plenty of pictures and videos, said Marcus Messner, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies social media.

“Marketers would dream of a hit like that,” Messner said. “We are so skeptical of what we see online that events with real, normal people easily become a mass phenomenon.”

People who don’t want to become unwitting Internet stars have one choice.

“The only way to control your online persona is not be online,” Messner said. “If you’re uncomfortable with the spotlight, the reassuring thing is that it will move along quickly.”

Hagar said he raised enough money from local contributions and donations generated by attention from Shaggy’s live video to break even on his $8,000 trip to South Carolina that included vet bills. A Forest Acres rescue group, Chasing Tails Pet Patrol, organized a fundraising effort though social media site FundRazr that collected $1,900 for Hagar’s trip.

Hagar’s advisers questioned the excursion, noting he was traveling 2,400 miles to save one dog. But social media changed that equation.

“I didn’t save one dog,” he said. “I really saved a lot more dogs by prompting people to take action.”

As a side result of her newfound social media fame, Hall gets advice on what to feed Shaggy and toys to help socialize the traumatized dog, which gives a low growl to strangers and runs away when they approach.

Fans also analyze photos that Hall uploads. One emailer noted Shaggy could escape her back yard by jumping on a chair that appeared to be close to a fence.

Hall said she knows that people have good intentions with their suggestions.

“I can’t imagine people would be interested for so long,” she said. “But we all like to see a happy ending.”

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