London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
Pulling up to the Plunkett Estate west of London on Saturday morning (Aug. 18) was like arriving at a rock concert.
Cars were lined up for as far as the eye could see down Elviage Drive and in almost every one was a dog, wagging its tail in excited anticipation.
Organizers were expecting as many as 6,000 clamoring canines to descend upon the fourth annual Pawlooza festival at the estate, with roughly 25,000 humans in tow.
The event drums up awareness and cash for animal welfare and rescue organizations and coincides with International Homeless Animal Day.
But it is also a celebration of the connections between people and their pooches.
Amongst the tents sheltering animal rescue or adoption organizations, the vendors pushing dog-friendly products, the dock-diving competition and the obstacle course, visitors had to maneuver around webs of tangled leashes as dog owners allowed their furry friends to meet one another.
In the many streams and ponds dotting the estate, pooches paddled around like surfacing submarines, cooling off in the late summer sun.
And everywhere, smiling faces and hanging tongues.
Shoshana Verton-Shaw of London said Pawlooza is able to draw out such a huge crowd of people and dogs because of how much the bond between canine and human has strengthened in the past few decades.
“Just because of how pet ownership has shifted in the last several years,” she said. “Pets aren’t just animals. If you look back 20, even 30 years ago, animals weren’t really considered as part of your family.
“Now they are.”
Verton-Shaw has attended the event for the past three years with her five-year-old German Shepherd Boomer, who received a great deal of attention as he made his way through a luring course Saturday afternoon.
Paralyzed in his hind end since birth because his spinal cord duplicated in the lumbar region of his back, Boomer uses a special wheelchair to get around.
He runs with his front paws and the wheelchair holds up his hind legs.
Having such a mobility challenge, however, has never slowed Boomer down, Verton-Shaw said.
“We go on backpacking trips,” she said, adding he loves the dog park, camping at Algonquin Park and even swimming.
“Which I didn’t know until he was about two (years old) and he jumped in the river.”
Verton-Shaw said Boomer is a very special part of her family and she can understand why the relationship between humans and dogs has evolved to the point where some people decide to adopt pets over having children.
“I don’t like to say that dogs are like kids, but he’s pretty close.”
London’s Ed Knight, who was enjoying Pawlooza for the first time with his one-year-old saluki named Jumah, said celebrating dog culture is really about recognizing that special, unconditional love a dog can give a person.
“They don’t want anything from you,” he said. “People love their dogs, they’d do anything for their dogs.”
It’s that special love shared between dogs and humans that Laurie Ristmae hoped current and future pet owners recognized and celebrated during Pawlooza.
The founder of the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), which rescues, rehabilitates and finds new homes for stray dogs and cats, Ristmae said the event allowed 55 animal welfare and rescue groups to appeal to visitors about the strong need to find homes for thousands of animals.
All of the proceeds from the volunteer-driven festival go to ARF and LEADS Employment Services, which assists people with disabilities in finding work and developing skills.
“Our goal is to put on a festival that promotes the adoption option,” she said.
It’s clear the event is a success in encouraging people to adopt homeless cats and dogs, Ristmae added, since the number of adoption applications coming into ARF and other local organizations doubles in the week following the festival.
“A week before Pawlooza, we send out an email to our adoption interviewers and foster homes saying ‘Get ready’,” she said. “They clear their schedules.”
But although some of the pets that can be taken home do make an appearance at the festival, all adoptions take place after Pawlooza, and anyone caught trying to sell animals during the event is swiftly escorted off the estate.
Not everyone gets the message, however, as even while Ristmae was talking with London Community News, reports came to her of people trying to sell puppies to visitors on the festival grounds.
Such an incident is not surprising, Ristmae said, as people are always targeting those looking for “instant gratification” when it comes to introducing a furry new member of the family.
That’s why she urges Pawlooza attendees to avoid buying a dog from anyone involved with “puppy mills” and encourages pet seekers to consider options beyond pet stores.
“You can get any dog from a rescue (organization), from an adoption group,” she said.
As for whether such a festival could be held for cats, opinions were mixed.
“You could, but you probably couldn’t bring the cats out,” said Verton-Shaw.
Knight agreed, saying cats “aren’t social.”
“This would be a cat’s worst nightmare.”
Ristmae, however, was enthusiastic about the idea of a “Catapalooza.”
“If there’s a group out there that wants to have Catapalooza, tell them to hook up with us, I’d love to chat.”