Humane Society event barks up the right tree

Dogs: The Baltimore County group raises funds with `Bark in the Park,' drawing a human and canine crowd for contests, portraits and gourmet dog food.

June 25, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

It was a day for diehard dog lovers.

Rain threatened, but more than 100 people swarmed onto the Humane Society of Baltimore County's tree-filled grounds Saturday with dozens and dozens of canines - foot-long Chihuahuas, hulking Labradors, tail-chasing German shepherds, nose-to-the-ground beagles and plenty of mixes thereof.

Called "Bark in the Park," the event was a change of pace for the Humane Society in Reisterstown, where people usually go to shed unwanted pets.

The dogs that frolicked with balls, flying saucers and each other - barking, sniffing and generally having a doggy time - are beloved.

"Just about everything we do, the underlining question is: `Can we bring our dog?'" said Jeff Ronning, 42, who drove in from Virginia with his girlfriend and their 4-year-old West Highland white terrier.

They got Bailey two years ago when his original family gave him up because of allergies. Every weekend, they take him to the pet shop, to the park or to the growing number of dog-centered events.

Bark in the Park offered plenty for the pampered pet: portraits, gourmet canine food, anxiety-relieving music and games that encouraged dogs to be dogs.

The barking contest gave pets 30 seconds to let loose and not be shushed for once. The race competition had entrants dashing - or waddling - to their owners. But dog bowling was the real challenge.

"C'mon, c'mon!" Kimberly Maruyama of Ellicott City cried to her mixed-breed, mid-sized dog, futilely encouraging her to barrel through the 20 pins set up in the grass.

Kaehli, 4, chased her 21-year-old owner around the pins but, like most of the competitors, avoided all but a few.

"They're so well trained," said Kimberly's mother, Carol Maruyama, laughing at the sight. "They're not supposed to knock things over."

The event, which raised about $4,000 last year, is part of a growing effort by the Humane Society to dig itself out of the financial hole it has been in for years. Frank Branchini, the group's executive director, said it is reducing the debt, which stands at several hundred thousand dollars.

Susette Baker, president of the Humane Society, said life has been difficult for the 74-year-old group, which gets no government funding and relies on donations and dues from its 5,000 members. Operating costs continue to rise, she said.

"We have a cushion - we're not shutting our doors - but that cushion is getting smaller and smaller," said Branchini, who joined the group about two years ago. "When I was hired, it was like, `Well, we've got five years left to fix this or we're out of business.'"

About 2,000 pets arrive at the Humane Society each year, he said. A third are dogs, and 88 percent are adopted, but some never make it out.

That's what prompted Owings Mills resident Paul Sapia, 47, to visit the Humane Society in the summer of last year after his canine companion of 10 years died of cancer.

He didn't think he was ready for a new dog, but then he saw Murphy, at 3 the oldest of the bunch. The shepherd-Rottweiler mix had waited since January for a new family.

"That just clinched it for me," said Sapia, Murphy at his side. "I was afraid he'd be the next one to be put down.

"He's been a great dog."

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