Christmas ritual gone to the dogs

Times Staff Writer

Call 3-year-old Cora a masochist if you like, but she'd be thrilled to get switches for Christmas. Maybe that's what she was trying to say to Santa as she posed for a picture with him, wagging her tail.

To Cora, a pit-Lab mix, switches are, after all, just another word for sticks -- which are perfect for chewing or fetching.

On Sunday in Echo Park, Cora was among dozens of canines that enjoyed -- or endured -- an annual holiday-season opportunity: posing with Santa for a photo.

It cost their owners $10 -- with funds benefiting the Echo Park Animal Alliance. The setting was the pottery workshop of Peter Shire.

"When I say the word 'Santa,' Cora gets excited," said filmmaker Jill Maxcy. "And when we arrive, her tail starts wagging."

Cora has reason to celebrate, as an animal-alliance client with a story as dramatic as that of any wayward starlet. She'd been found on Hollywood Boulevard, running around wearing nothing but a ribbon around her neck.

But look at her now: 70 pounds of bounce and good cheer, with a Santa hat hanging off at a crazy angle. At a Nuts for Mutts event last year, her healthy deep-brown fur landed her Best Coat.

As they say, in every dog a story -- like the nervous 12-year-old basenji pit bull.

"She would like to leave as soon as possible," said Jamila Nzinga, a probation officer. "But she smells the dog treats, so that might keep her interested for a while."

And what would this aging warrior tell Santa?

"She'd say she wants her companion back."

The basenji's "partner," a Lab named Storm, died three weeks ago. "I'm just taking this dog wherever I can with me so she's not alone so much," Nzinga said. "You'd have to be a dog person to understand."

And Santa does.

"I have some connection to the animals, I don't know what it is," said Mike Prichard, 64, a community college instructor who belongs to the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Clad in Santa suit and red baseball cap, Prichard reported that no dog has yet bitten him or relieved itself on his costume.

Santa's red wooden throne was especially decorative, the backdrop draped with red and yellow silk velvet, green lame and white silk pique. All were leftovers from Christine Peters' day job as a costume designer. The co-founder of the animal alliance, she explained that Sunday's event, in its fifth year, was her group's major fundraiser. The nonprofit operates on a shoestring budget of about $10,000 a year.

Much of the money pays for the care of sick or injured animals that would otherwise languish untreated or be destroyed because their owners are short on funds.

"It's hard when people have to choose between caring for their pets and the essential expenses of their daily lives," Peters said, pointing out that a canine hip replacement costs $1,000.

Peters' group also distributes government-funded vouchers for free spay and neuter services, along with providing transportation to such services. "Our mission is to help the people of Echo Park learn how to help their animals."

For several years, Echo Park Pottery, Shire's studio workshop, has been the site of the Santa-dog event, which also marks the one day a year that the public can tour and purchase items directly from the artist. Also on hand were an aromatherapist, a chair masseuse and a local baker handing out samples.

The gathering is emblematic of classic, eclectic, communal Echo Park, Shire said, "before the rising real estate values devour us."


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