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Humans, animals gather to help Friends of Strays


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

If you believe in the existence of heaven and hell, you probably will buy into the belief that a special place is reserved in the latter for people who are cruel to animals, just as there is a special place in the former for those who rescue them. Both categories of people were on my mind Saturday at a luncheon to benefit Friends of Strays, which neuters and provides temporary care and shelter to stray animals.

Saturday luncheons are not high on my list of favored activities (wouldn't you rather stay in your PJs until noon?), but this is an event I would not miss. I was not alone; 300 people filled the St. Petersburg Yacht Club ballroom for the fundraiser.

Fran Williams, Donna Johnson and Geri Gardner are the women in charge of organizing it, and they are to be commended, but the stars of the day are dogs and cats who arrive at the shelter often near death and are brought back from the brink by the loving kindness and care of volunteers. It's fun to watch the dozen or so animals, healed and healthy, mill around, sniffing and licking, unaware they are in a place usually reserved for society denizens. (Perhaps sensing their favored status, they are unfailingly well behaved, which I cannot always say of their Homo sapiens counterparts.)

Hattie, an 8-week-old (they think) ball of fur that looked a little like a husky, though no one knows for sure, obligingly let a lot of people hold her, including Shirley Janits, who carried her around while Hattie's caretaker, Marge Stephens, attended to other animals. Stephens estimates that she has had 1,200 dogs and cats in her temporary care during the past 12 years. She owns 10 dogs. "I take the ones who are unadoptable," she said.

Mary Malachowski showed off a fake cat that had a real-sounding meow to friend Sara Cramer; nearby, Teddy, an authentic feline who lost an eye to an untreated infection after he was abandoned, was unfazed and purring in the arms of Karen Katsbulas, a volunteer with Friends of Strays. "I love it," she said. "I work there on Sundays, cleaning the cages."

Cliff Hamilton and Yvonne Owen, who live in Annapolis, flew in to Orlando from Hawaii and headed to this event, which they have generously supported financially, to sit with friends that included Bill and Joan Alberson and Warren and Betty Johnson, all of Sarasota.

Rodney and Connie Medina brought their daughters, Anna, 5, and Ava, 2, but left their adopted dog and two cats at home. Mrs. Medina's mother, Connie Reed, also left her two Friends of Strays cats at home. You will probably wish you didn't know this, but we should be aware of these things: Mrs. Reed's cats are still too skittish to attend large functions because they were the famously named "Two-Feet," both having had their back paws chopped off and then abandoned. They seem fine now.

And that forgiving nature of animals amazes me. A year-old multimix, now named Rawhide by his owner, Jean Smith, was found outside a store unable to stand, worm-ridden, starving and abused. He was named by shelter folks BOB, an acronym for Bag of Bones, which photos of him at that time prove he was. Now he is a healthy, loving pet who holds no hard feelings against people. Nor does Ferdinand, a spaniel mix found in a trash can when he was about a day old. He now lives with Becky Craig.

Okay, there also were some people I enjoyed seeing as well as the animals, such as Friends of Strays co-founder Jean Bomonti; Mary Jane Heatwole, who organized the silent auction composed mostly of baskets containing not luxury items but pet supplies; Isa Howard; Jan Knowlton and her mom, Peggy Hagan; Linda Helm; Karen Hunt; Darlene Sellers; Bob Waxman; Mattie White; Beverly Passe; John and Barbara Smith, who had Fluffy, their adopted dog, in tow, whom their vet thinks is a purebred Puli, a Hungarian sheepdog whose fur resembles dreadlocks.

A Lady and the Tramp moment occurred backstage before the fashion show when Champ, a husky-shepherd mix awaiting adoption, spied Dolly, a purebred poodle. The poor guy was probably drawn to the glamor of her pink paw nails and her figure, revealed when she donned a bikini for the show.

Dolly also sported a daytime ensemble and, for the grand finale, an elaborate wedding gown.

I love dogs, but I don't subscribe to the "dress-them-up-in-clothes-because-they're so-cute" school of ownership. Dolly's trainer, Judy Griffin, sensing my skepticism, said, "It's not like I'm a weirdo who dresses a dog in clothes. This is for a good cause."

Dolly is part of Project PUP, Pets Uplifting People, an animal-assisted therapy group. Dolly is one of the performers that visit seniors facilities. She and her handlers bring her piano, which she plays, and a stroller, which she pushes.

Champ, tightly on leash and drooling, was led away, wearing the hang-dog look of the love-struck.

Looking ahead

March 8

WOMEN'S SYMPOSIUM: Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for Gender Equality, is keynote speaker at the annual awards luncheon sponsored by the Women's Council of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Local women will be honored for business and civic contributions. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Campus Activities Center, University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. $26. 821-4069.

March 9

SUPER SLEUTH HERITAGE HUNT: St. Petersburg Museum of History gives you the historic hints, and you have to find the answers, all within walking distance in the downtown area. Food and cash bar before and after the hunt. 6 p.m. 335 Second Ave. NE, on The Pier approach. $35.

March 10

CASA SPORTSTACULAR: A gala that allows you to come casually clad, plus live and silent auctions, to benefit the Center Against Spouse Abuse. 6 p.m. TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, 5500 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. $95. 895-4912.

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