Claus, claws meet in photo shoots

Keepsakes: Animal owners line up to have their beloved pets photographed with Santa.

December 24, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

They lined up all day to visit with Santa Claus.

There were a pair of black Great Danes with painted red nails, two rat terriers called Scooby and Scrappy wearing bright crimson sweaters, and a large rabbit named Velvet that, in a moment of hysteria and utter holiday sacrilege, jumped up and scratched Santa's head, leaving a nasty cut.

"Do you think you'll need a shot?" inquired a concerned elf, Denise Franchetti. Undaunted, Santa had the wound cleaned, adjusted his hat, wig and beard and forged ahead because, hey, it's Christmas.

This holiday season, hundreds of owners and their beloved pets lined up at the PETsMART store in Bel Air, and many more visited the chain's 650 other outlets in the United States and Canada to have Fluffy's or Spot's picture taken with Santa, then framed in a snowflake suitable for hanging on the family Christmas tree.

While this might seem a strange exercise to some, to others it is perfectly reasonable.

Rebecca Boisseau of Joppa, who brought her Great Danes Duke and Addida to see Santa, explained: "They are my children, and they deserve the best."

Half of the fees most of the stores charge for the Santa photo shoots go to animal rescue programs. In Bel Air, where Santa greeted pets for three weekends leading up to Christmas at a cost of $10 per photo, the money will go to a greyhound rescue project.

Pet Christmas has become big business in the United States. PETsMART officials say that more than half the nation's 64 million households with pets will buy them holiday gifts this year -- from edible greeting cards to a gimmick that enables owners to be "bow-lingual" by attaching a microphone and translator to a dog's collar, thus expressing in words what a pooch might think of his gifts.

`Part of the family'

Attesting to what some see as the new pet holiday frontier, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association told Business Day that Americans spent $31 billion last year on pet products, including gifts. That figure should go higher this year, the association said.

"Today, there is more of a bond with the animals, they are part of the family," explained Sharon Kimmel, the Bel Air store director.

The Bel Air Santa is known on other days of the year as Charlie Brannan, 70, a retired federal and state executive who resides in town with wife Donna and three rescued greyhounds. "I've been playing Santa here for five years, and it is one of the highlights of my life," he said. "I've never had a dog growl at me, although I can't say the same thing for a couple of humans."

But there was that bunny attack. "That was a first," Brannan said. "Last year, a ferret tried to nest in my beard, and we've had a couple of, eh, accidents, but we just cleaned them up and met the next pet."

For the most part, dogs and cats outnumber other species visiting Santa. But Kimmel, the store director, said a pot-bellied pig named Emily came by last year. And there have been boa constrictors, a goat, cockatoos and iguanas. At other stores around the country, she said, animal visitors have included a camel and a buffalo.

Shopping lists

A few pet owners will even speak for their animals, requesting specific gifts from St. Nick. Like Jerry and Wanda Sadler of Fallston. J.R. is their 1-year-old Doberman, and Jerry Sadler told Santa his dog likes footballs. Then, the couple walked over to the rubber toy aisle and picked up a couple of footballs to reward J.R.'s exemplary behavior. "He will unwrap his gifts on Christmas Eve with us," Sadler said. "It's like he's our child."

Other shoppers, while fond of their pets, said a visit with Santa is going a little too far. "I have a Great Dane named Sadie and I love her, but I would not bring her to sit with Santa," said Susan Kates of Abingdon. "I have a teen-age son to focus on."

Still, the parade of animals continued to the Santa station. Among those in line was Steve Remsnyder with Pete, a boxer pup. Pete was perfectly poised as his picture was snapped by elf Joan Clarke.

Happy that his pet handled his first visit with Santa with such grace, Remsnyder stretched out his palm and sought a congratulatory "gimme five."

Intoned a bystander: "Jeez, whatever happened to `shake?'"

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