Pets pounce into Santa's lap
More than 300 pets, including a Puddin' the guinea pig and a lovebird named Chico, posed for pictures with Santa Claus.
BY CAMMY CLARK
KEY LARGO -- Red the boxer gave Santa Claus a gift to remember: a big, slobbery kiss on the nose.
After five years of playing Santa -- at the annual Pets & Piña Coladas fundraiser for the third-grade Wild Kingdom class at Key Largo School -- plumber and animal lover Bob Hutchinson has learned to expect the unexpected.
''I've been peed on by dogs, pooped on by birds,'' he said. ``But pets still are way easier than kids.''
More than 300 pets, most rescued from abandonment or abuse, posed for pictures with Santa over the weekend at the Keys Kritters pet shop in Key Largo.
Red, who drew a roar of laughter for the kiss he gave Santa, was near death 10 years ago when Mercy and Bruce Yanda found him in the Redland, hacked by a machete.
''Red, show your battle scars,'' Bruce Yanda said. ``He has a big one right behind the ears.''
The Yandas also brought their other dog, Ruby the mutt, who was found living under a car.
Rosalyn Wojciechowski brought her rat terrier Niko, who was tied to a dock for three days before being rescued. Sandy Sherrill brought Jackson, her ``found dog.''
''I found him running right down the middle of U.S. 1 when he was about 9 weeks old,'' Sherrill said.
Jackson weighed nine pounds and was extremely sick with worms, ticks and fleas. Five years later, Jackson weighs 120 pounds and serves as the mascot at the Rock Harbor Paint store.
Keys Kritters owner Robby Majeska said it is the 25th year he has held a photo shoot for pets with Santa. The tradition dates back to the days when he and his father owned a combined 37 pet shops in several states.
Since moving to the Keys 10 years ago, Majeska said he has tried to get involved with local schools to help kids learn about animals and the responsibility that is required to care for them.
While Majeska said it was wonderful to see all the rescued pets that now have good homes, the goal is to prevent future animals and pets from being abused or abandoned.
In the Wild Kingdom class, the students take care of animals that include lizards, snakes and hamsters. If the kids keep up good grades and show responsible care of the pets, they are allowed to keep them at the end of the school year.
For the photo shoot, most critters are welcome to settle on Santa's lap.
''We've had chickens, frogs, iguanas, chameleons, rats, gerbils, rabbits, sugar gliders, tarantulas and even a skunk,'' said David Martinez, who has been trying to get pets to look at his camera since the event's inception in Key Largo a decade ago. ``Santa has no fear.''
Hutchinson said he's from Massachusetts, where skunks often would stroll into his backyard. The key was not to startle them.
Puddin' the guinea pig and Chico the lovebird were among the pets who saw Santa on Sunday.
Hutchinson, who grows his gray beard long for the occasion and works for $200 worth of cat food, was patient with even the most scared or rambunctious pets.
Martinez did his best to get the pets to look at the camera, using squeaky toys and a yellow plastic chicken clad in a purple polka-dot bikini.
''We need a rabbit,'' Martinez said when Katie Mason hopped onto the chair with adopted greyhound Romeo.
Mason said she was walking Romeo on Saturday night and asked him whether he wanted to see Santa. Romeo's ears perked up.
''I told him don't forget to ask Santa for the winning lottery ticket number,'' she said.
Many owners adorned their pets in festive accessories, including Santa hats and reindeer antlers for poodles Michaela, Wendy and Rusty.
Zoe, a half-Maltese, half-poodle, seemed happy wearing her pink sunglasses.
''Zoe is short for Zoloft because she is an anti-depressant,'' owner Linda Hoffman said.
``She keeps the smile on my face. You can't feel down when a dog is around.''