They arrive at the Maryland SPCA, these creatures great and small, to pant on Santa's lap, perch on Santa's arm, lick Santa's face and, in the case of two very excited guinea pigs, leave a little something on Santa's beard.
It's Pose Your Pet with Santa Day, an annual fund-raiser for the nonprofit animal welfare organization. For $5, pet owners receive a photo to treasure, while the staff receives the inspiration of seeing people love their pets the way they wish everyone would.
The majority of these happy pet owners adopted their animals at the SPCA. Some are repeat visitors to Santa, a k a SPCA board member Bob Wood. Santa's helpers include photographer Bob Stockfield and SPCA executive director Debbie Thomas.
The drawing room of the SPCA's historic administration building in Hampden serves as Santa's portrait gallery. His eyes twinkling, Santa sits next to the fireplace in a Victorian chair covered with rose-colored velvet. He's ready to handle dogs, cats, parakeets, ferrets, hamsters, even humans.
L "If anyone brings a snake in," he confesses, "I'm done for."
Why, here's Brucie, the dachsund, in her red plaid Christmas dress! Brucie's sister, Hetty Green, came to pose with Santa last year wearing the same dress. Bobbie Rasin beams proudly at Brucie, who is such a good girl! She smiles even more broadly at Brucie's new Polaroid picture.
"That's a much better photo than last year," she says. "Last year, Santa's beard was in the way. And you know how we feel about that."
Santa's beard is a problem -- but mostly for Santa. Most of his visitors are so enthusiastic he has a hard time keeping his hat and beard on at the same time. Continual adjustments are necessary.
"We're doing the baby and the dog," announces Nancy Fairchild she enters the drawing room. She says she is the proud grandmother of both Vijay and Oro.
Vijay Baskar, age 16 months, had his first picture taken last year with Santa. It was at a point in his life where he couldn't tell a beard from a bib.
This year, however, he is more discriminating. He has figured out just enough to be terrified of the weird-looking guy trying to cheer him up.
The golden retriever, on the other hand, is quite mellow about the whole thing. Oro lies patiently against Santa's boots while Camera Elf attempts to capture the millisecond when Vijay isn't bawling.
One of Santa's next human customers is Will Rogers, 2, who has come to pose with Tank, the family Weimaraner. Young Will is also at a challenging stage, but at least he can tell Santa about the kitty cat he wants. And he's wearing a Williams College T-shirt.
Santa perks up. "Did one of you go to Williams?" he asks the child's parents.
The Rogerses look puzzled.
"Williams happens to be Santa's alma mater," Camera Elf explains.
Birds of a feather ...
In four years, Santa hasn't been bitten once. But when it comes to the Alpha Elf's safety, the staff isn't taking chances.
"You want the muzzle to stay on, I presume?" Elf Debbie asks Tom Gaeng, the human who's with Marco, an arresting combination of golden retriever and German shepherd.
L Gaeng nods. "The shepherd portion is still strong at times."
Santa also has a shepherd -- his fifth -- and says he feels confident handling Marco.
Cats are more difficult, though. "Sam's a good cat," one woman promises Santa. "But watch out if he licks you. If he licks you, that means he's going to bite you."
With Sam, Santa prevails, but next up is Oso, a military macaw -- exotic, colorful and full of bite potential.
"I wouldn't mind losing a finger," Santa jokes nervously. "As long as it's not on my casting hand."
He takes his cues from Oso's human, 10-year-old Torr Rogers of Butcher's Hill. At first, Oso poses on the crown of the chair, looking as if he is preparing to take flight from the skull of the jolly old elf.
"What's the bird doing now?" Santa asks, all the while maintaining his Ho-Ho-Ho look for the camera.
"Look up, Santa," instructs Camera Elf. Santa casts a merry, but wary, eye toward Oso.
Then Rogers shows Santa how to coax Oso onto his arm. Click! Merry Christmas, Oso!
A very lucky dog
Edith Borden and Lucky bring Santa a vivid, spirit-of-the-season story.
It began five weeks ago when Borden, an animal lover from Glen Burnie, was driving near Fort Bragg, N.C., and took a wrong turn. There, lying on the side of the road, was a black dog. Borden stopped to see if the animal was dead or needed help.
The dog was alive, but emaciated. Borden had some dog food in her car and fed the injured animal.
"Because he looked so sick, and because I had my basset hound with me, I didn't dare take him with me," she tells Santa. "I figured, 'You can't save the entire world.' But when I got home to Maryland, I kept thinking about him. I couldn't get him out of my mind."
Two days later, Borden drove back all by herself, 385 miles, straight to the place where she had left the dog. He was still there, lying in the bushes. Borden carried him to her van, drove him back to Glen Burnie, and named him Lucky.
"People thought I was nuts," she says.
Santa listens respectfully, perhaps wonderingly, to Lucky's tale. Then, as he points the hound dog toward the camera, he instructs: "Say I'm very, very happy you came back, Mom."
In floats a family of five Russian wolfhounds wearing Christmas bows and jingle bells. These are sleek, royal-looking dogs, the kind trailed by Disney cameras.
Drue, Trina, Pavil, Shade and Kad turn out to be easier to arrange than a bowl of fruit. Their human is Norman Sheckells of 29th Street. He says they've already appeared in two operas: "Macbeth" and "The Daughter of the Regiment." They form a fluffy canine nimbus around Santa.
With dogs like these, who needs reindeer?
Then there's Liz, the combination pointer and springer spaniel. Liz is quite agitated by the time she meets Santa. After waiting for quite some time, she looks worried that the human she's sniffing will give her a shot -- or, worse -- try to clean her teeth.
Liz needs Santa's reassurance.
"You just got on the wrong end of this deal here, kid," he says. "You're smelling the 63 others who came before you. It's all right, Liz," he says, stroking her head. "You're no trouble."
Neither are Cappuccino, the chocolate lab puppy, and Snuffy, the beagle puppy, who are fused together briefly on Santa's lap for a blended family shot.
"Snuffy, you've got to calm down or you won't get any presents," his human warns.
Much wiggling and squirming and barking later, a portrait emerges.
"Santa, you're a brave man," says Snuffy's happy human, shaking his hand. Santa shrugs off the compliment with the nonchalance of a man who can see the end of his shift.
PD "The only trouble I've had all day," he says, "was with a baby."
Sixty-five customers raised $600 for the SPCA on Saturday.
Pub Date: 12/08/98