A Shaggy Dog Story 

Dog star Benji visits Memphis to promote international adoption program.

Film producer Joe Camp defied Hollywood naysayers with his classic 1974 live-action film, Benji, about a day in the life of a shaggy dog. Using no voiceovers for the dog, Camp managed to create a film as true-to-life as could be done with 1970s technology, with a dog who'd spent his early days in an animal shelter in Burbank, California.

When fans learned where the film star came from, they flocked to shelters around the country to rescue their very own Benjis. The American Humane Association reported a large amount of adoptions following the release of the original movie, and Camp hopes to create that sort of interest in shelter rescues again.

Benji has been in six films; the latest, Benji: Off the Leash, was released this year. The current film's star came from a shelter in Gulfport, Mississippi.

On Thursday, November 4th, Camp will be in town at the Central Library with Benji to kick off "Home 4 the Holidays," an international event that encourages people to adopt shelter pets over the holidays rather than purchasing animals from backyard breeders or puppy mills.

"When the new Benji was adopted in November 2001, they completely emptied the shelter in Gulfport before Christmas," says Camp. "The problem is after a couple of months, it's back to business-as-usual."

Camp says he's trying to counter the apathy with events like "Home 4 the Holidays," staged at 1,500 shelters in 20 different countries. Adoptions will be counted at participating shelters throughout November, December, and the first week of January.

The Mid-South rescue organization S.O.S. Animals, led by local rescue activists Michelle Buckalew and Jeanne Chancellor, will host adoption events in pet-store parking lots throughout the season. The first event will be held on Saturday, November 20th, at Petco in Poplar Plaza.

"People sometimes pick up [the newspaper] and go to the ads to look for a puppy, but 90 percent of those ads are placed by backyard breeders and puppy mills," explains Buckalew, who is also the editor of Animal Times. "If those people would opt not to buy from a breeder this year and instead go to a shelter, maybe the people who are using pets to profit will see that the demand's not there next year. We're putting those people out of business."

According to Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego, California, female dogs in puppy mills are often confined to cages for the sole purpose of breeding more and more puppies. Typically, backyard breeders sell puppies to anyone with enough cash, says Arms. "Home 4 the Holidays," on the other hand, encourages shelters to screen candidates to ensure good adoptive homes.

The Helen Woodward Animal Center, a progressive animal-rescue center with an educational program that "teaches children how to share the earth with animals," began "Home 4 the Holidays" in 1999. During the first year, 2,563 pets were adopted from 14 participating San Diego shelters. Last year, 263,000 animals were adopted during the event in 1,300 shelters worldwide. This year, organizers hope to place 300,000 animals. Last year in Memphis, about 200 pets were adopted through the program, according to Buckalew.

Benji's adoption from a Gulfport shelter started with nationwide photo search. Camp came to interview a different dog when the head of the shelter walked into the room with a more perfect pooch.

"I started talking to the dog and taking pictures and within 10 minutes, I knew," says Camp. "Here was a dog that had been on the streets for who knows how long, and now she's in the back room of the shelter with this strange guy down on the floor with a camera, and she was just as happy as a clam."

After the search was over, Camp went home with three new shelter adoptions. The Gulfport dog became the new Benji. A rescue from Chicago became his sidekick, Shaggy, and another dog from L.A. became a family pet. Camp now has four dogs, two cats, and two chickens.

"Two of our four dogs are shelter dogs, and there's a difference," says Camp. "We love them all, but the ones that came from a shelter act as if they know they came out of bad conditions into a loving home. Shelter adoptions make for a whole different relationship between the dogs and their humans."

For more information on "Home 4 the Holidays" and animal rescue, check out www.sosanimals.org/events.htm.

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