Bill Gerstein couldn't believe it. Words he never thought he'd read were right there on his phone: Bella has been found.
Nearly three years after disappearing outside Gerstein's law office in Fort Lauderdale, the family's Maltese-Pomeranian mix was in an animal shelter in Paterson, New Jersey — about 1,200 miles from home. The shelter, which had checked Bella's microchip, sent him pictures. She looked ratty, her coat was in rough shape, but it was her. Gerstein got on a plane that day.
"It was jubilant for us to finally get her back," Gerstein, 45, said Tuesday, as Bella scampered about the living room, still getting acquainted with the family's other two inseparable dogs, Maya and Lily, two Cavapoos who became new additions while Bella was still missing. Bella occasionally growls and bares her teeth at Maya, who tends to avoid eye contact with Bella.
"I didn't have any realistic hope of seeing her again," Gerstein said. "The possibilities were endless: She could've been killed, she could've wandered into a swamp near our office."
Fortunately, Bella didn't wander into a swamp, but how she got to New Jersey is a mystery. Gerstein, whose immigration law office is near Commercial Boulevard and NW 31st Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, regularly brought Bella to work, and that's where she was last seen.
"She was the office dog," said Gerstein's wife Dori, 46, also a lawyer.
On the day Bella went missing, Dec. 13, 2013, Gerstein was on a work call on his cellphone as the dog conducted her own business outside the law office. Gerstein said he was distracted and went back inside to do some more work. About an hour later, he wondered where Bella was and couldn't find her. An extensive search was mounted. Posters were put up, police were called, and a Facebook page was created. All to no avail.
Gerstein also watched surveillance video of the parking lot outside his office. There was a car parked across several spaces, and as it drove away, Gerstein noticed something white moving in the vehicle.
He talked to police, who looked into it and determined the owner of the car didn't have the dog and that the white movement might have just been sunlight hitting the car's windows.
The Gersteins' four children, Michael, now 17, Sarah, 15, Sean, 13, and Emma, 6, took the news hard.
Particularly Emma, who was 3 at the time. She would often talk about Bella, and would sometimes cry and say she missed Bella well after the dog was gone.
Gerstein missed Bella too. So when he got the email just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 22 from Petkey, the pet recovery service for the microchip implanted under Bella's skin, saying the dog was at Paterson Animal Control in Paterson, N.J., he was stunned.
Gerstein said Bella was shaking and wagging her tail when he first picked her up. "She definitely remembered me," Gerstein said.
The next day, they flew home for a happy reunion with the rest of the family, including Dori's sister Heather Bosch and her children Cole, 14, and Jenna, 9, who also live with the Gersteins at their home in West Delray Beach near U.S. 441 and West Atlantic Avenue.
"She wouldn't stop kissing me, and she's not a big kisser," Dori Gerstein said. They also took Bella to the veterinarian, who determined she was in good health.
Angel Rivera, an animal control officer at Paterson Animal Control, said a young woman had found Bella wandering on a busy thoroughfare in Paterson early last week and brought her to the shelter.
Rivera checked the microchip and found it was registered through Petkey. He called Petkey, who sent the email to Gerstein, instructing him to call the animal shelter.
By sending a picture and confirming the microchip's ID number, Gerstein and Rivera were able to confirm that the dog was indeed Bella.
"I was shocked, he was shocked," said Rivera, 37.
Rivera said that had the shelter not found the owner within seven days, Bella would've been adopted out. He recommended that pet owners not only invest in a microchip but also register the microchip.
"In my 12 years here, I've never seen anything like this," Rivera said, barely able to believe that a dog missing for three years and from 1,200 miles away had been reunited with its owner.
Gerstein also said he's been in touch with another woman in Paterson who contacted him after Bella was found. She told him she discovered the Facebook page about Bella and told him that Bella — her family had named the dog Linda, coincidentally, the Spanish equivalent of Bella, meaning pretty or beautiful — had been living with her in Paterson.
She sent Gerstein pictures of the dog while it had been living with them. She explained that somebody had given her the dog in January, and that she and her family had grown to love her. But then Bella escaped under a fence and the woman never saw her again.
Bill Gerstein asked the woman who had given her the dog and tried to find out more in hopes of learning more about where Bella had been since December 2013, but he got murky answers and decided to let it go. After all, it didn't matter anymore. Bella was home. Dori Gerstein said they were grateful that the woman took care of her.
Both Bill and Dori accept that they'll probably never know how Bella got to New Jersey.
"If only she could talk," Bill Gerstein said.
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