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Annapolis couple raises money to defend animals' legal rights

Michelle and Larry Kownacki first got involved with the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 2005, when they became foster parents for Gentle Ben, a Jack Russell terrier who had been hoarded and neglected.

They chose the name because the dog, one of more than 300 crammed into a South Carolina home, lacked the feistiness typical of Jack Russells. That didn't last long. Over the years, Gentle Ben gained health and personality. He also became the mascot for the annual benefit the Kownackis hold in Annapolis to raise money for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Seeing the changes in Ben, and knowing the Animal Legal Defense Fund had saved his life, inspired the Kownackis to begin hosting the fundraisers. Like other dogs in hoarding situations, Ben had been unaccustomed to human contact. "It was almost like he was this little closed flower bud," she said. "It's a wonderful thing to see that spirit come back."

For the past five years, the event was held aboard the Harbor Queen, a Watermark boat that cruised the Annapolis harbor. But this year, it will be on solid land, at a private marina clubhouse in Annapolis. That way, the dogs will have more room to run around, said Michelle Kownacki.

The 2012 Ben's Waterfront Benefit Bash will be Sept. 8, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The $60 donation allows admission for one dog and one person and pays for live music by Dave Tieff, wine-tastings organized by the Wine Cellars of Annapolis, and food and drink for all. The dogs will get a sheet cake with peanut butter frosting.

"It's not a typical fundraiser," said Michelle Kownacki, owner of two other Jack Russells, Davis and Sprocket, as well as a cat, Ali. "It actually is a celebration of these animals that are part of our lives."

Dick Smothers, of the Smothers Brothers comedy group, will be on hand for the raffle of a bicycle that he has donated. Additional funds will be raised through an auction of some 50 items, including gift certificates to local restaurants, jewelry, airline tickets, and a two-night stay in California wine country, said Michelle Kownacki.

Last year, with help from the Squires Group, an Annapolis information technology company that provided a matching grant of $10,000, the event, then known as Ben's Cruise, raised $20,000. The Squires Group is making the same commitment this year, Michelle Kownacki said, and she is hoping to raise at least as much money.

The Kownackis, who live in Annapolis, opened their retail store, Paws Pet Boutique, on State Circle in 1999. Michelle Kownacki was already involved in animal rescue causes when she learned of Ben's plight and agreed to adopt him.

That's when she got involved with the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "I didn't know there were lawyers that did this kind of stuff," she said. The ALDF is not a shelter, and so had to find homes for the dogs. Meanwhile, it pressed a civil case seeking custody of the abused animals.

"It was a landmark case for ALDF," said Lisa Franzetta, spokesperson for the organization, which relies mainly on donations for its annual budget of around $5 million. The organization, founded in 1979, uses the legal system to protect animals and promote animal rights. Since January, Michelle Kownacki has been a board member.

"She's been already a really wonderful and galvanizing force on our board of directors," said Franzetta. "I know she's certainly an inspiration to both our board and our staff here at ALDF."

Said Michelle Kownacki: "If there's something I can do to bring attention and funds to their efforts, that's something I want to do."

Advance paid registrations are required to attend Ben's Benefit. To register, call Paws Pet Boutique at 410-263-8683, or visit the store at 64 State Circle in Annapolis.

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