By the time you read this, Rusty the stray dog probably will boast more friends on his alter-ego "Steve Arfenbarker" Facebook page than you have on yours.
"Rusty first came to us in 2007 and has pretty much been around since," says Harry Peters, president of the Forest Glen Homeowners Association of Oak Brook. "In the dead of winter, 10 below, 3 inches of snow, he'd be out cruising the streets."
Most stray dogs either get caught or get killed after a few weeks on their own. But this dog, believed to be a 4-year-old Chow-Sheltie mix, managed to become a fixture in the Forest Glen and Woodside Estates subdivisions in the village for the last three years.
"He adopted our neighborhood, and we adopted him back," Peters says. "We started feeding him and it became a regular thing. But he wouldn't let us get close."
Residents all had their own names for the frequent visitor, who was known as Rusty, Steve, Trotter, Willow, Handsome, Hobo, Red Dog and Mr. Windyface. They left out food (sometimes steak) and fresh water. Rusty had no collar or dog tag. Although he never growled or showed his teeth, the friendly dog never let residents get close enough to pet him, let alone catch him. Police and animal control experts couldn't nab Rusty either.
"I had a big cage in front of my house," remembers Lynn Trombetta, a longtime resident of Woodside Estates, who worked with humane groups in the beginning in an attempt to rescue the stray. "He was very smart. The food would be gone, but the cage would be empty."
Peters and his wife, RonnDa, once called an animal control service.
"He was too smart," Peters says of Rusty. "We think he saw the guy's van and took off."
A creature of the street, Rusty wasn't exactly shy or mysterious.
"We'd see him every other day," says Peters, who videotaped Rusty playing in the yard with their old dog Bailey. After Bailey passed away in 2008, Rusty made friends "just like that" with the Peters' Shih Tzu-Poodle siblings Charlie, Benji and Sam.
"When you'd take your dog for a walk, Rusty would walk with you, but he'd never get closer than 3 feet," Trombetta says.
Until one day late last month.
"We're in the back yard and there's Rusty at the gate," Trombetta says. "He was waiting to play with our dog."
When they opened the gate, Rusty came into the enclosed yard to frolic with Milo, the Trombetta's recently rescued bichon-poodle mix. They closed the gate and called the nonemergency police number. Trombetta says it was "just dumb luck" that Chris Soderstrom, who has worked as a veterinary technician, was at their house on another matter. He managed to coax the dog into his arms and deliver Rusty to the Oak Brook police.
"Honestly, I think he was ready to be caught. He wanted somebody to help him," Peters says.
"Maybe he was just tired of being on his own," Trombetta figures.
While she says some people gave her "some grief" for bringing Rusty's freedom to an end, Trombetta probably saved the dog's life. With help from "The Welcome Waggin'" mobile service of Naperville veterinarian Lisa McIntyre, Rusty has gotten X-rays, blood work and urinalysis and will soon begin treatment for heartworms, which is "a concern," says Lori Halligan, executive director of the Hinsdale Humane Society, where Rusty has been living. Halligan credits "the people of Oak Brook" and employees at the Follett Higher Education Group campus for "doing so much for this one little dog."
While Rusty understandably relates better with dogs than he does people, "he's a very gentle dog," Halligan adds.
Peters and others are investigating a story they heard Friday that a truck driver reportedly had asked a local business about a missing dog back in 2007. If that's true and leads to a happy reunion, great. If not, lots of people want Rusty to be part of their families.
More media outlets will publicize Rusty's story soon, and visits to his Steve Arfenbarker Facebook page aren't the only thing piling up. Donations to a special fund to pay for his care topped the four-figure mark a while ago. After years of worrying about their stray mascot, Oak Brook residents now know Rusty is going to be out of harm's way.
"What the heck? Rusty's got his own trust fund," Trombetta says, confident his new life will be better than his old life. "No matter what, Rusty does not have to go through another winter on the street."