Suzanne Heigh planned a long time for this particular Christmas purchase: a rambunctious, 8-month-old black Labrador mix named Sparky, a gift for her eldest daughter.
But Heigh got an unexpected bonus yesterday at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter: a bag full of stuffed toys, doggy snacks and other must-have items for a pet owner, thanks to the county's inaugural Toys for Pups drive.
"We don't have any of this at all," said Heigh, giving up her attempt to keep a grip on Sparky as she spoke. "It really eases the burden of taking in a new dog, especially at this time of year."
'Tis the season to be Muffy. Or Fluffy.
At shelters and pet stores across the region this holiday time, donations of blankets, food, kitty litter and thousands of other gifts to comfort stray or abused animals are pouring in.
At the Fairfax shelter, volunteers with the Reston Dog Park Coalition were overwhelmed with donations for their first-ever holiday campaign. Petco, Petplanet.com and several other pet-related corporations have sponsored successful donation drives.
At the two District shelters run by the Washington Humane Society, officials have been forced to rent a storeroom to hold all the items donated in recent weeks. Spokesman Jim Monsma said the group has been given scores of doggy coats and sweaters--which help keep shaved or emaciated dogs warm while their pens are cleaned each day--not to mention dozens of boxes of cat toys and "enough rawhides to fill an office."
"Some people clearly wiped out entire pet stores," Monsma said. "We have enough sweaters and toys to last at least a year. . . . We're very touched by the depth of compassion that people have shown for these animals."
The largess is welcomed by many animal shelters, where the need for money and other donations is constant. Holiday-themed gift-giving campaigns are rapidly gaining favor across the country, experts said.
"They come in with so many different kinds of needs. Anything that people can give to help shelters out is great," said Cindy Stitley, an official with the Humane Society of the United States. "This is a great opportunity for people to help out pets that aren't as fortunate as their own."
Brian Davidson, president of the Reston group, said members were surprised by the overwhelming response to its Toys for Pups drive. "Pet owners, in general, are very civic-oriented," Davidson said, "and this shows that."
The Fairfax bounty included pet necessities and toys and treats of every description, including beef jerky snacks, leashes and cedar-filled beds. One of the shelter's occupants, a sweet-tempered Rottweiler named Lexus, gnawed contentedly on a stuffed, fuzzy candy cane during a news event yesterday.
The need for pet items is especially great in the days before and after Christmas, when the Fairfax shelter and many others prohibit adoptions to avoid impulsive pet-getting behavior.
"We hope this will inspire people to give throughout the rest of the year," said John M. Howard, director of the Fairfax shelter. "These are things we can always use."
CAPTION: Pam Andrews, in antler hat, gives a dog a toy at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, which has reaped carloads of pet goodies from the Toys for Pups drive. Such efforts have triggered an outpouring of generosity at area animal shelters.
CAPTION: A dog at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter is waiting to get something special for the holiday season.