Pets Are Wonderful Council Fetches a Good Cause

Times Staff Writer

It was classic Americana: part media event (known in less sophisticated times as a publicity stunt), part beauty pageant (the winner got red roses, an oversized cardboard check for $1,000, a red sash, a press conference and a champagne buffet).

Naturally, it was all for a Good Cause.

It was the Most Wonderful Pet Contest on Wednesday, and you will be happy to know that the Most Wonderful Pet in America is one of our own, a Redondo Beach resident.

California-Style Dog

He is Tanker, a Doberman pinscher and Labrador mix who, although born in the Midwest, is a true California-life-style dog: He loves the beach, body surfing, children, Frisbee catching, showing off for folks and riding in the sidecar of his master’s motorcycle.

Tanker was quite a contrast to the cape-wearing feline entry from New York, Pogo, whose act consisted largely of being carried stretched out over his owner’s head and “singing,” the latter being a squawk when prodded to provide the word gal as a human sang “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”

But Pogo, true to his Manhattan upbringing, had class. He left the contest scene in a taxi.

Well, back to Tanker, whose owner, Charlie Spellman, not only has done a consummate job training the smart pooch but who also knows a media trick or two.


Spellman, togged out California-style in shorts and a Snoopy T-shirt emblazoned with “The King of Fling” (Snoopy playing with a Frisbee, something Tanker does best), held forth with all the poise in the world at a post-contest press conference in the patio of the Assistance League Playhouse in Hollywood, where the contest was held.

Tanker sat regally as Charlie Spellman fielded questions. “Tanker began by chasing a ball, but when he was about a year old he began to really enjoy the Frisbee.” “Yes, I have trained dogs all my life.” “We called him Tanker because when he was a pup he was the first to eat, the first to tank up.” “He’s a California dog. He loves the beach.” “Yes, I can use the $1,000 prize money. I have a wife and two kids.”

Spellman said that Tanker “will be 6 in August,” then attributed the dog’s unswerving calm and obedience amid the contest hullabaloo and media chaos to “the Labrador in him, a mellowness.”

Then, for Tanker, came the only uncool moment of the day. Maneuvering for yet another photo, somebody stepped on his paw. He yelped.

Tanker was one of 10 finalists from all over the country brought here for the most Wonderful Pet Contest sponsored by the Pets Are Wonderful Council, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to spreading the joys of pet ownership nationwide.

The Pets Are Wonderful (you guessed it: PAW) Council sponsors the event each April to encourage people to provide homes for the thousands of dogs and cats in animal shelters. The goal this year is to place 75,000 cats and dogs in adoptive homes.

Many of the contestants came from shelters, and each was sponsored by a shelter. Tanker’s sponsor, the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also received a check for $1,000.

Although no statistics are presently available--that is a PAW project for this year--a spokesman said the organization has found “a steadily increasing trend to get animals from shelters.” In addition to the Most Wonderful Pet Contest, PAW sponsors speakers’ tours, mall exhibits of animals and works closely with shelters to promote placement of pets in homes.

For Fun or Profit

PAW sponsors range from the American Animal Hospital Assn. and the United Kennel Club to TV’s Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”) and psychologist Dr. Lee Salk and include a spectrum of those interested in animals for fun or profit or both.

In a separate but related event underscored by an “Adopt a Pet Day” proclamation from Mayor Tom Bradley, the Pet Orphans Fund and Volunteer Services to Animals last Saturday placed nearly 300 pets from six city shelters.

Despite the event’s success, Virginia Haley of the Pet Orphans Fund fretted that new pet owners may not follow through with proper veterinary services, identification tags and nutrition, especially for young animals, and encouraged pet owners to call her organization at 207-0012 for advice.

The Most Wonderful Pet Contest was as classy as its human sponsors could make it:

--A four-piece combo attired in black ties and tuxedos played to a full house, just like at a Beverly Hills fashion show.

--Contest officials in red “Most Wonderful Pet” T-shirts passed out fat press kits, helped TV crews, answered reporters’ questions and assisted the judges.

--Actress Betty White, known for her love of animals, was mistress of ceremonies.

--And like many an event starring humans, the contest was a half-hour late in starting.

But it was the contestants--eight dogs and two cats--who stole the show.

Boopie, a Labrador retriever mix from Hellam, Pa., was first. Boopie did a few tricks, including rolling over before he was commanded to, obviously anticipating the sequence of his repertoire. Then he addressed his paws to a piano and “played” it. He was rewarded with doggie treats.

Fumble Recovered

The piano played an unscheduled part in the act presented by Tank and Calli, two Old English sheep dogs from Evergreen, Colo. Tank loves football--he wore a numbered jersey--and in going for a long pass Tank skidded across a dozen microphone cords and off stage onto the top of the piano. He recovered his fumble, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

In addition to Pogo, the New York taxi-taker, the second feline entry was Tripod, a tabby who lost a front leg after being caught in a steel hunting trap. She nestled in the lap of her owner, veterinarian Dr. Donald S. Fincher of Galax, Va., who said Tripod “is handicapped only because she’s dependent on me.”

He said the cat had been in the trap for a week in freezing weather and that she weighed less than three pounds when found although she was several months old. After Tripod’s leg amputation, her owner decided she didn’t want her and asked Fincher to put her to sleep.

“I just couldn’t do that. Tripod had fought so hard to live, to get well,” he said. “I asked the owner if it would be OK to find her another home, and I knew where that home would be: with me.”

During the contest, Fincher and Tripod received a bouquet of balloons bearing “good luck and love from Pat and Susan,” who must have rejoiced at hearing that Tripod was named “most congeniality” (sic) in the contest.

Scruffy, a terrier mix from Bluffton, Ind., wearing a red, white and blue outfit, was named second runner-up. She loves playing ball, her best shot being basketball, a game that consists of Scruffy’s aiming a balloon-like ball at a basket attached to her owner’s undulating waistline. One way or another, Scruffy made a basket every time.

Scooter, a personable schnauzer mix from Dallas, was first runner-up.

But it was Tanker’s day. So he missed a Frisbee once; the audience appreciated the fact that he performed without the rewarding doggie treats. And when, after an impressive drum roll, Tanker was named the Most Wonderful Pet, the audience burst into rousing applause, whistles and foot-stomping cheers.

One of the judges, professional animal trainer Bryan Renfro (mentor to TV’s dog Boomer), later praised Tanker’s owner Charlie Spellman for his superb training of the dog, then gave a nod to all the owners.

“I respect these people a lot,” Renfro said, “because they are not professional trainers. It’s very difficult even for a professional to present an animal under these circumstances, with all the lights, the band and the audience noise.”

But Renfro, professional though he be, had no solution for a pet owner’s problem with a puppy that steals--and then chews--the family’s underwear.

“I’ve got a cairn terrier that does the same thing,” he said. “I had to send my wife out in the front yard the other day to get my shorts.”