A wee bit of Christmas cheer

All in a Day’s Work
By J.F. Pirro, November 2009

IT BEGINS WITH AN affectionate Alfie, then a yellow English Labrador Retriever. Later, there’s Stella, a chocolate Labrador.

They all go after the beard—and the face beneath it. But as the volunteer Santa for “Pet Photos with Santa, ” Santa’s after the bucks to pay the bills of the nonprofit German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue PA, Inc. Each year, the group rescues 60 or more of the dogs affectionately called GSPs, and vet bills for foster dogs can run $20, 000 annually.

So, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Here we go.

Pepper’s the first leaker. The Shih Tzu/Pomeranian mix leaves a little whiz, just a few droplets, on Santa’s right shoe. Is Santa a Christmas tree? Soon, the rest of the volunteers get theirs: Pierre, a black-haired Poodle, pees a river by the rescue table, prompting Santa to say, “Better there than here. ”


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And better to volunteer, especially during the holidays. Playing Santa each year to dozens of children and their dogs (and to four you’ve-never-smelledanything-worse ferrets the first year) to raise money for rescue—a record-setting $1, 094 in 2008—has led to several poignant realizations.

When you’re Santa, everyone’s nice to you. When you wave, everyone waves back. You lose all inhibitions. Oh, to be Santa every day!

One middle-aged customer tells Santa that her husband, too, plays Santa for the local fire department—and he doesn’t need extra padding either. Thanks. Really.

After all, it’s the belly that begets the request.

In the course ofthe day, this hardened Santa experiences two especially heartwarming moments: First, Ethan, a shy boy in a family offour posing with two dogs, opens up to Santa. Later, Santa engulfs a 12-week-old GSP pup named Bailey in his arms and has flashbacks to his own boyhood in the, ahem, North Pole.

Ethan warms slowly, but only after announcing his GSP’s name—Ali “Call Me Biscuit” Fetcher, a nine-month-old rescue with a beautiful Boxer for a brother. (No surprise in Philly’s suburbs, the Boxer is named Rocky. )While waiting for the photo to develop, Ethan politely asks Santa, “Do we get to tell you what we want for Christmas?” As he sits on Santa’s lap, embodying the trust and joy intrinsic to the season, he asks for a Star Wars something or other, “the one with the directions. ” When the photo’s developed, he’s the one who runs it to Santa.

Another little boy, Cole, enters with his Rhodesian Ridgeback. There’s just something special about a boy and his dog. It takes Santa back to his first boyhood dog, Fritz, a loyal, high-energy GSP, and also to his favorite childhood memory— each winter day, when Santa’s younger twin sisters, Monica and Maria, arrived home from school, Fritz would topple them in tandem by tugging at the tassels atop their wool hats.

Cole asks for a parakeet, then decides it’s an irresponsible request: He says he’d have to miss school every day to stay home and care for it. In pure innocence, he reflects a responsibility for our animals beyond that of most adults.

Then, it’s a virtual GSP parade: Lucy arrives with her boy companion, Christian; both are three years old, but Christian proudly explains how he came first. Another long-legged GSP, Reilly, is apparently a supermodel; she’s wearing a white evening coat. Two more rescues enter, one a Greyhound called My Amigo, the other a Lassie look-alike with the Christmas name of Holly.

A second Rocky, this one a Doberman, is camera-shy and Santa-shy. On the sweet side, there’s Zeke, a 14-week-old Cocker Spaniel bathed and groomed for Santa. On the sour, there’s Smoky, whose behind is smoking a ferret-rivaling stench—but, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” —it’s all for rescue. (To help the cause, visit gsprescuepa.com. )

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 57: Nov/Dec 2009

J.F. Pirro has been published in national and regional magazines as well as alternative city newspapers.