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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Santa's Little Yelpers

A Metroland feature from December 6, 1990. I approached the task aloof with a cynicism that evaporated as I spoke with the very likeable people there. And much as I hate to admit it, after 21 years, the photo does exactly what it's supposed to and provokes great sentimental "awwws" around the house.


Photo by Meera Shankar
My parents forced me into a photo session with Santa when I was four and I have resented them for it ever since. The traditional revenge, of course, is to inflict the punishment on your own children, but I haven't got any. So when the Clifton Country Mall announced its second annual “Pet Day with Santa,” it seemed like a good opportunity to give the brutes a road trip and sooth my damaged sesibilities.

It also would answer an important question: Who in their right minds wants to wrestle a beast into Santa's lap? The cruel truth is that, holiday mangers notwithstanding, animals care nothing for Christmas.

Malls are traditionally petless places and we felt very out of place leading our animals through the corridor. Bud Collyer, my two-year-old black Labrador, has never been taught to walk on a leash and zigzagged in front of me as he chased what must have been some splendid smells. Susan led Asta, an eight-month-old mix of Australian Blue Heeler and neighborhood hound.

This was the dog that barked at the occupants of every passing car, with special eagerness at stop lights. She barked at the people in the mall; she even barked at her own reflection in the shop windows.

Try to visualize the set-up we found: Santa sat at one end, of course, in that oversized chair he drags from mall to mall. Around him were red and green holiday decorations, or what was left of the decorations after one unhappy dog decided to attack the plastic holly (possibly because it had been anointed by another unhappy and somewhat incontinent beast).

Santa held the leash or took the proffered animal in his lap while the photographer worked to capture the moment – with the more skittish animals, the very brief moment – and the owners stood on the sidelines making attention-getting noises, snapping fingers, and whistling as if performing Flamenco dances for their pet's amusement.

We moved along a row that included dogs of all sizes to take our place about 18 people (or animals) back.

Around the house, Bud has the agreeable disposition Labs are renowned for. When he met Bart, the young shepherd mix who waited in front of us, we saw another side of our pet. It was instant enmity. Teeth were bared, snarls exchanged. And my dog, embarrassingly, was the instigator. Still, the incident served as a quick introduction to Bart's owners.

“We don’t have kids,” said Cindy. She and husband Bill were from Troy. “We figured we might as well do this as a practice run.” We swapped dog stories, which made it easy to talk to everyone on that line. We admired each other’s pets, discussed the matter of food and exercise, complained about vet bills. It’s a great way to meet people. A Single Pet Lovers club would probably be very successful.

People also could learn a thing or two about waiting in line from dogs. I don’t have to describe the sniffing rituals – you’ve seen it often enough. But you’ve never really enjoyed it unless you’ve seen a line of a dozen dogs all straining at leashes to check out one another.

And why stand when you can flop on the floor? The more peaceful dogs stretched out and groomed themselves. The militarists strained to eat one another. The miniatures huddled under thick mops of hair and resembled animate rugs.

“Nice dogs you have there.” It was getting to be a pretty common compliment from our fellow pet escorts, but this came from a man who had no animal and simply stood by, watching. He introduced himself as Dale Lynch, and he revealed that he was the inspiration behind the project. “I worked at Photo USA then,” he said, “but I got the idea from a University of Florida fundraiser. They had animal pictures taken and people brought chickens, someone brought a camel – someone even brought a boa constrictor.

“I suggested it last year, we tried it and it was a great success.” The event also holds a special meaning for him because he had his own dog, Bourbon, photographed at the Florida event. The animal died nearly three years ago and the picture has a great sentimental value.

“But don’t talk about me,” he said as we collected our dogs and prepared to herd them back to the farm. “If you could, just dedicate your story to the memory of Boo.”

Consider it done.

Dale moved on to talk to the couple behind us, Dorothy and Mike from Saratoga. They brought a pair of Pinschers. Molson was on his way to full doghood, but Mindy was a tiny pup wrapped in Dorothy’s jacket, staring out with large and inquisitive eyes. “This is going to be an excellent Christmas present for my parents,” Dorothy explained.

Once again our socializing was dog-interrupted as grumpy Bud bared his teeth at Molson. I felt stupid saying things like, “Oh, come one, now, Bud, knock it off,” when I really just wanted to bust him one, but propriety held me in check. Is it different with children?

Asta, in the meantime, settled into another barking fit. Only what she does isn’t simply barking. It’s a kind of howl-tinged percussive bray that will damage your hearing at a hundred feet. She always shares it with us when the doorbell rings.

Here, surrounded by more dogs and people than she’s ever seen before, she had fallen unusually quiet. Then a hound down the line let loose with some ruff-ruff-ruffing and Asta’s ears danced upward and she joined the chorus.

Dogs are enthusiastic when it comes to a sing-along. They pick individual tunes and intone them without ever seeming to tire. The best thing I can say about this particular hootenanny was that it at least surpassed the mall’s Christmas Muzak in quality.

A few pets behind of us a cat crouched comfortably in his owner’s arm, its ears twitching in acknowledgment of the noise. His owner, Jennifer, brought Alex down from Saratoga Springs for the photo. Normally shy of dogs, he impressed her with his composere. “He’s doing pretty well,” she said. “I saw the ad in the paper and just wanted to get his picture taken. It’ll be a nice memory.”

The line moved up a notch as another pet was freed from Santa’s lap. This probably wasn’t such a bad gig for the bearded one. No lists being thrust in his face, no children whining for presents, although we saw one enterprising parent get both a toddler and a dog into a Santa photo.

Want a videotape of the event? A TV monitor on the sidelines carried an image of the scene that was yours to purchase. Bring the tape back year after and watch your pet (or child, or both) grow in Santa’s company.

Behind Jennifer stood Pat from Burnt Hills with her Silky Terrier, Ember. “I have two other dogs and I had their photos taken at Sears,” she said. “I didn’t want Ember to be left out.”

Bart’s turn arrived, a signal for me to get back in place. Despite a proffered doggie treat – a hot dog from the food court, in fact – Bart was not anxious to meet the guy in the red suit. He dropped onto his belly. He slithered. He whined. He had to be hand carried to the man, and he quivered all the way.

By the time Asta and Bud got up there we were expecting the worst from Bud, but it was Asta who put on the bigger show. Her hackles went up and she gave a nasty houndish growl as she approached. We couldn’t blame her, really, once we saw the platform.

Hairs of all colors coated a rug that must have contained a riot of smells. Among other substances. Meera Shankar, the photographer, helped us position the pair, but Santa was best of all. He took Asta onto his remarkably dry but very hairy lap, and Bud sat beside him. Both quieted just long enough for a single shot.

I tried to interview Santa about this project, but he’s a busy man with little time for questions. “Santa loves dogs,” he explained, referring to himself in the third person as celebrities do. “Santa hasn’t been bitten. Yet.”

1 comment:

Sharon Wesley said...

love this. good writing, Byron! Holiday Greetings to wife & daughter!