`Critter Chatter' show aims to get pet lovers talking


Colleagues count on Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff to liven a stodgy meeting with a droll tale of an errant bull or marauding pigs. She has created media forums to find homes for bedraggled, unusual and aging pets. And she willingly matches wits with anyone.

So when Carroll's Community Access Television sought an anchor for its live talk show on animals, the staff figured Ratliff, director of the Carroll County Humane Society, would fit the role perfectly. The station's first live show premiered last week, with Ratliff as host and animal trainer Laura Totis as her first guest.

Marion Ware, director of the Community Media Center, which broadcasts to about 34,000 households from its Westminster studios, said she thought immediately of Ratliff when planning an interactive program.

"TV is most often one-way, but this format encourages dialogue," Ware said. "Nicky has a real passion for her subject, and she is a natural teacher. She truly wants to inform people and get their feedback."

Critter Chatter airs live the first Tuesday of the month. The center will rerun the show several times until the next one airs Dec. 6 on Channel 19.

The half-hour show promises tips on pet care, knowledgeable guests and lively banter. Listeners can call in questions and receive an on-air answer.

Ratliff, who did Pet Talk on radio for nearly a decade, has amassed camera time these last few years with Making Friends. That program, taped for cable on Adelphia Channel 3, enables her to show off myriad charges in her care at the county shelter.

Nearly every animal who appeared on camera has found a home, even an obstreperous goat and a tarantula that had grown to the size of a grapefruit.

But live TV leaves no room for retakes. The host must quickly adjust for fumbled lines, a no-show guest and camera miscues.

"I'm learning," Ratliff said. "You can teach an old dog new tricks."

For her debut, Ratliff chose a seafoam green blazer, its lapel accented with a pin of a lolling cat.

Waiting for the countdown, she adjusted her guest's microphone and fussed with a pile of papers filled with what she called "way too many questions to guard against dead air time."

"I don't mind being on camera, but when you are the host, you set the tone," Ratliff said. "You have to choose your topics and prepare your questions."

Minutes before she heard "we're live," Ratliff was the picture of calm, unruffled that a minor illness had forced Aron, her first canine guest, to cancel. Ratliff chatted amiably with Totis, who has made three animal-rescue trips to Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina.

"When I ask questions, expound on your answers," Ratliff advised Totis before the cameras rolled. "Say whatever you want to say."

Aron, Totis' sidelined Rottweiler and fellow traveler, is trained in rescue and in cadaver search. The 60-pound female recovered enough to pose for post-show photos.

Ware hovered in the production room, where the staff manned six cameras and counted down to what everyone called "the launch."

"Tape is rolling," said Josh Mackley, who operated the taping and phones. "We are 30 seconds to intro. Cue the talent."

Shots of animals flashed across the screen as viewers were welcomed to the station's "first truly live show."

Ratliff opened with a request for pet questions and then introduced Totis, as "a trainer who has been teaching good manners to animals for years."

Host and guest slipped easily into conversation with Totis recounting her trials rescuing animals in the wake of the hurricane.

"Thousands of dogs were in shelters and many more were in flooded homes," Totis said.

After a second trip, Totis returned to her kennels near Hampstead with 11 dogs from the Gulf Coast. She has since found foster care for all of them and reunited two with their owners.

On their third trip, Totis and Aron were part of a cadaver recovery team. Aron climbed over flood debris and even scaled walls to alert emergency crews.

Amid this on-air conversation, the first call rang through to the set. Susan from Westminster asked how to curb her beagle's voracious appetite. The 18-month old pet had just eaten a cassette tape.

Totis and Ratliff offered healthy alternatives, like Cheerios. They suggested hiding chew toys or bones around the house to keep the beagle busy.

"Dogs like to work, and they hate to be ignored," Ratliff said.

The on-air pair easily resumed their discussion and deftly wove Totis' experiences around two more calls, one from the new owner of feline twins who was trying to kitten-proof her home and another asking when to begin training her pooch.

"You can reinforce the right behavior as soon as they are born," Totis said. The three callers showed viewers were already tuning in, Ware said.

"This show is going to be fun, and it's giving audiences a chance to participate," Ware said. "It will build."

Ratliff agreed to the fun part, but added, "Thirty minutes can be really long."

Instead of commercials, the breaks featured charming pictures of shelter animals available for adoption, complete with their quirky names and brief but candid bios.

"A good obedience class would do him wonders," one write-up said of an appealing mixed breed.

Nationwide, about 25 percent of pet owners adopt animals from shelters, said Ratliff, who is all about trying to raise that percentage and Critter Chatter will help, she said.

Ratliff has lined up several guests, including a few canines and felines, for the next few months.

Next month, she will interview an animal behaviorist. In a county with about 40,000 dogs and even more cats, Critter Chatter could eventually become a viewer favorite, Ratliff said.


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