Humane society makes TV show its pet project

Adoption: A Carroll organization puts animals in the spotlight to find them homes.

August 29, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The unrehearsed stars of Making Friends had no signs of stage fright during the filming of the weekly cable television program last week. These residents of the Humane Society of Carroll County acted naturally.

A curious beagle sniffed the video equipment. An energetic Labrador refused to settle. A docile mongrel repeatedly licked the emcee's face. The cats' paws stuck to the rug. The tiny bunny snuggled in a caretaker's arms.

It was all in a day's taping for Nicky Ratliff, humane society director. Knowing her guests' brief stint before a TV camera could end their homelessness makes her an enthusiastic emcee.

"We want to get people thinking about what is here," she said. "It is really hard to find homes for all these animals, and anything the media does helps."

In her role of talk show host, Ratliff feels at home in front of a TV camera and comfortable with her guests - canine, feline and otherwise.

"It is just like talking to anybody else, only you are talking to more of them," she said.

She once showed a dairy goat. It was adopted, and her staff still laughs at the outtakes, she said. A tarantula that animal control officers had retrieved from the garden of a frightened caller also found a home.

"The spider was the size of a grapefruit and could have eaten a Chihuahua," she said. "Without exception, our weekly stars are adopted. TV helps a lot."

Jason Bender, who helps produce the show for Adelphia Channel 3, said it is one of the station's most popular.

"If it is," Ratliff said, "it's the animals, not the people."

Seconds before a recent taping, Ratliff and an assistant lifted Velvet, a hefty, mixed-breed dog, to a table at camera level. Ratliff smoothed the dog's curly black coat and turned its slightly graying face to the cameras.

"You have to look at the camera, Sweetie, because your new owner is out there looking for you," Ratliff said, petting the dog softly while reading its brief history from a pink notecard.

The next second she smiled, said, "Hello, folks," and began her spiel.

"This is one sweet dog, a nice gentle giant with no bad habits," Ratliff said. Velvet, as if on cue, licked Ratliff's face. "This poor girl has been through a lot, and she's here because her family got a divorce. Can you spare a little love for Velvet?"

Next up was Midnight, a friendly black Lab, a stray found in Sykesville.

"If you recognize this dog, call its owner and tell them he is here," Ratliff said to her audience.

The dogs led a parade of four more animals featured on the 15-minute segment that aired three times last week in Carroll County. By Friday, Midnight, a cat and the bunny had been adopted.

Velvet, a shelter resident since Aug. 3, is still waiting.

The show has grown in popularity since it debuted 18 months ago. About 140 animals were placed in homes last month, a record for the society that averages about 60 adoptions a month.

A satisfied customer

Jo Ann Zaleski of Westminster already owned a Labrador mix and wanted a companion. She found one on Ratliff's show about a year ago, went to the shelter and asked for Sadie.

"She sold herself to us," Zaleski said. "She is part of our family now and fits in well."

Animal shelters, humane societies and rescue groups all rely on the media to place animals. They post photos on Web sites, in veterinarians' offices and in community centers. The Baltimore County Humane Society has found homes for several pets through a booth at the Maryland State Fair.

"These events put your face out there, so when people are ready for a pet, they think of you," said Diane Kesler, president of the Baltimore County society's board of directors. "We know these things are all helpful. People have come here saying they saw an animal on our Web site."

The Defenders of Animal Rights runs a prominent weekly newspaper ad picturing its most photogenic or longest-staying guest.

"We post a new picture every week, and it usually works," said Christina Belcher, an animal caretaker. "People call."

Frederick County's version of Making Friends has proved as successful as Carroll's, said Brigitte Farrell, humane society director.

"It is really an awesome tool that showcases animals we have for adoption," she said.

Harold Domer, director of animal control in Frederick County, said visitors to the shelter often request an animal they have seen on the show. If that animal has been adopted, the visitors frequently go home with another.

"The show brings people in," Domer said. "We have also been able to return lost pets to their owners this way."

Nationwide, about 25 percent of pet owners adopt animals from shelters, said Ratliff, who is trying to raise that percentage.

`A misconception'

The Carroll shelter handles about 6,000 animals a year, everything from stray dogs and cats to goats, calves, hamsters, gerbils, ferrets and snakes. Two 150-pound pigs stayed overnight last week, until their owner called to claim them.

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