Pet Tales: Strays on stage


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A big terrier-mix stray ended up in a rural Tennessee shelter, where employees who liked the sandy-colored dog named her Porky. They tried very hard to find her a permanent home, but no one adopted her.

"Her time ran out" early this year, and the friendly, happy dog "was led into the euthanasia room and placed on the table. The vet tech prepared the injection and was about to administer the shot. At the last second, Porky slipped free of her collar and jumped into the arms of a prison inmate, a trustee who had been in charge of her care at the shelter. He begged them to spare her life. Everyone was so moved that they agreed to give her 48 more hours."

That description of Porky's near-death experience is in a nonfiction book coming out on Sept. 19 -- "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars" written by Bill Berloni and Jim Hanrahan. ($19.95 Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).

Porky isn't a star yet, but she's the understudy for Sunny, the big terrier-mix former stray who will portray Sandy in Broadway's 35th anniversary production of "Annie." It's expected to open in New York City in November.

It's Sunny who poses with Mr. Berloni on the cover of the book that tells how Mr. Berloni, a professional animal trainer, has been "making stars out of strays" for 35 years. It started when he was a 19-year-old aspiring actor assigned to find and train a dog for the original production of "Annie."

Here's how the newest Sandy dogs got their big breaks.

Porky was re-named Sandy by rescue volunteers who sent impassioned emails all over the country, begging someone, anyone, to save the life of a dog who looks like the one in the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip and the musical it inspired. The email found its way to Mr. Berloni, had been searching for months for a new Sandy and an understudy that would be trained to step in if the canine star can't perform. He changed Porky's name to Casey, and took her and several other dogs to auditions in New York. The ultimate winner, Sunny, had been discovered in a Houston shelter where she had less than 48 hours to live.

While the dogs rehearse daily with the rest of the cast, Sunny and Casey live with Mr. Berloni in an Upper West Side apartment. His permanent residence is in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Dorothy, their daughter, Jenna, 14, and about 40 animals, including 22 dogs.

Dozens of Mr. Berloni's past and present dogs are profiled in prose and pictures, including the original Sandy who worked with five Annies, including Andrea McArdle and Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1970s and '80s. The book includes anecdotes about human stars, including Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Bernadette Peters, Barry Bostwick and Mike Nichols and other directors.

Mr. Berloni's four-legged proteges include an Old English sheepdog in "Camelot," a bull terrier in "Oliver," a wire-haired fox terrier in "Nick & Nora," a Cairn terrier in "The Wizard of Oz" and a Chihuahua in "Legally Blonde." Cats, rats and piglets have also been trained for theatrical productions.

Mr. Berloni and his dogs traveled throughout the country for regional theater and high school performances. In a telephone interview, he said he has fond memories of Pittsburgh. He's brought dogs here for Pittsburgh CLO productions of "Annie" and to Woodland Hills High School for "Annie" in 2010 and "The Wizard of Oz" in 2009.

When a dog's acting days are over, many retire to the Berloni home. Others are adopted by friends, relatives or cast members. The same goes for the dogs that audition but don't make it. Almost all of the dogs come from shelters and rescue organizations. A very few purebreds were purchased from breeders when shelters did not have the breed required by a director.

Bill Berloni was the first animal trainer to receive the Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2011. Twenty percent of his book royalties will be donated to The Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York, where he is a behavior consultant.

Most of us won't see the Broadway "Annie," but we can see "Annie's Search for Sandy," which will air nationally on NBC sometime in October. Sunny, Casey and many other rescue dogs will be featured.

Fido Ball

The 10th annual Fido Ball for the White Oak Animal Safe Haven no-kill shelter will be held next Saturday at the Youghiogheny County Club, 1901 Greenock/Buena Vista Road, Mt. Vernon (15135). Auctions and a 50-50 raffle start at 6 p.m., dinner at 7:15 p.m., $75 per person. To RSVP, call 412-672-8901.

Spaghetti for cats

A spaghetti dinner for FosterCat Inc. will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. next Saturday at Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1000 Greentree Road, 15220. There will also be an auction, 50-50 raffle and cat toys for sale.

The all-volunteer 501c(3) organization has fostered and found permanent homes for more than 1,100 felines since 1999. Tickets are $9 for adults and $4 for children under age 12. Buy tickets at the door, at www.fostercat.org or call Dianne Gruendl at 412-653-3660.

Memorial walk

Noelle Richards loved animals and dreamed of having a dog of her own. That dream came true in July 2011 when she adopted Taetum, a 5-month-old female pit bull. A month later, Ms. Richards, 24, and her boyfriend Anthony Henderson, 24, were murdered in the home they shared in Washington, Westmoreland County. Eric J. Hall, 29, of Ligonier, has been charged with criminal homicide, robbery and other crimes in connection with the deaths. Taetum now lives with Noelle's mother, Cara Richards.

Next Saturday, the Noelle Richards Memorial Walk will celebrate her life and her love of animals. The walk begins at Pavilion No. 3 in Twin Lakes Park, Hempfield Township, The schedule is: 9 a.m. registration; 9:45 a.m. blessing of the pets; 10 a.m. walk starts; 11 a.m. butterfly release; 11 a.m. to noon pet costume contest and raffle drawing.

Registration is $30 per person the day of the event. Dog-friendly dogs are welcome. Proceeds benefit Hello Bully, Animal Friends of Westmoreland County and Action for Animals. Visit the Facebook event page for further information.

Rabies clinic

The Washington Area Humane Society inoculation clinic is Sept. 9, noon to 4 p.m. at Tractor Supply Co., 460 Washington Road, Washington, Pa. (15301).

Shots and costs are: $8 rabies; $12 for DHLPP, including distemper, for dogs: $10 kennel cough; $17 Canine Lyme disease; $12 FVRCP, including distemper, for cats; $12 feline leukemia; $15.75 one dose Frontline Plus/Advantage Multi. A microchip is $30. Information: 724-222-7387.

pets

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to petpoints@post-gazette.com. It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. First Published September 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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