Shelter dogs star in a variety show
Shelter dogs star in a variety show
Marti Maguire, Staff Writer Comment on this story
Only the most tenuous of canine connections link Randenn Tristar Affirmation and Jacob.

The former, known as Yes to his legion of fans, is the sperm-bank bred and Apex-owned standard poodle that lost Best of Show honors on the national stage of the Westminster Kennel Dog Show last week to a frumpy Sussex Spaniel named Stump.

The latter is a rag-tag mutt that's part pit bull -- a breed widely shunned thanks to its fighting infamy and the high-profile arrest of a certain NFL quarterback. Jacob's coat is a scar-pocked light-brown and dirty white, his lineage unknown beyond his recent stint at the Wake County animal shelter.

But if last week's Westminster Kennel Dog Show is the epitome of canine snobbery and fame, the lowly shelter dog also has its supporters among animal activists, bargain hunters and dog shoppers keen on plucking at least one animal from the fate of thousands that are killed every year in the state's animal shelters.

"There's something about them," Susana Micciche, who is fostering Jacob for a pit bull rescue group, said Sunday. "It's like they know how lucky they are."

For devotees of the canine prestige ladder's lower rungs, the televised show's off-the-chart pampering and exotic breeds are an insult to the salt-of-the-earth pups they work to save.

"I hate dog shows," said Dan Richards, who, along with his wife, runs the AniMall Pet Adoption and Outreach Center at the Morrisville Outlet Mall.

But most reserve their more bitter remarks for other targets -- the profit-seeking backwoods breeders whose unsold puppies crowd shelters and the vacuous celebrities who have driven up demand for yappy, purse-size dogs to the detriment of other breeds.

"At least the dog show people are ethical breeders," Richards added.

Nor is the haughty world of high-priced pets the only place to buy a purebred chihuahua or Dalmatian. About a quarter of all shelter dogs are actually purebred, said Pat Sanford, who used to head the Animal Protection Society of Orange County and is active in several animal-centered causes.

"The reasons that people bring dogs to the shelters is fairly predictable," Sanford said. "They don't have time for them, they're moving, the dog's not housebroken. ... This happens as much to our purebred dogs as it does to non-purebred dogs."

The AniMall storefront houses a rotating cast of rescued cats, rabbits and other small animals. Rescue groups that work with specific breeds and animal shelters in Wake and Orange bring dogs to the storefront on weeknights and weekends so that strolling shoppers can see them without the often depressing trip to the sites where so many unwanted animals die.

"It's easier to see a dog in this environment," Richards said. "They can shine here."

Shoppers who strolled by the storefront Sunday might have caught Jacob, whose handlers think he might be part pointer, and fellow pit bull-mix Petey frolicking on the floor, their beefy necks and hind legs pushing and flailing as their mouths hung open in slobbery dog smiles.

"See how vicious they are," joked Joe Micciche of Holly Springs, Susana's husband.

Pit bulls and pit-bull mixes are common in animal shelters, and face long odds for adoption thanks to a reputation for aggression that made headlines when former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges.

Sanford is among those who think this fear is warranted, since pit bulls have largely been bred to be aggressive, just as other types of dogs are to shepherd animals or seek out scents.

The Micchiches' last dog, who died in August, was also a pit-bull mix, a fact the New York shelter they adopted it from tried to hide by saying it might be a boxer or, finally, a Staffordshire terrier -- a fancy name for pit bull. Their neighbors balked, but the dog, which died in August, was loyal and friendly, they said.

Lynn Russell, a volunteer with the pit bull rescue, used to breed cats for shows, so she understands the pursuit of perfection that drives the dog show.

But dog owners, she said, can find what they're looking for without spending the cash, or the effort, it takes to make a dog look and act perfect.

"The working dogs are bred to work, and the toy dogs are bred to be ornamental," Russell said, referring to two broad categories of competition in the Westminster show. "These dogs are just good pets." or 919-829-4841
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