It’d been two years since volunteer Cheryl Grese saw Heritage Farm Park full of wagging tails eager to race to the rescue of animals in need, but on Sunday Operation Paws for Homes finally restarted its second-biggest fundraiser.
Snouts sniffed, leashes lurched toward the start line and friendly barks flew across the park in Walkersville. A mascot dog playfully pounced on the dewy grass, much to the delight and, in some cases, confusion of canines. The overcast skies and early morning temps made for cool running weather.
“I’m just so happy we can do it and do it safely,” Grese said. “It’s good to see people come out.”
Of the many hats Grese wears at the nonprofit, one of them is 5K director. The 6th annual Fast & Furriest 5K run and 1-mile walk should have been held last April, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the event’s cancelation, after being delayed three times.
The funds from the event primarily support the rescue’s medical expenses, which towered over $150,000 in 2020, and more than $47,000 on heartworm-positive dogs alone, according to Grese. Operation Paws for Homes has rescued more than 10,000 animals since its inception in Virginia in 2010, she said. They typically rescue dogs and cats from overpopulated shelters in the southern states, Grese said, since they tend to have higher kill rates due to a lack of funding. More information about the rescue is available at ophrescue.org.
Operation Paws for Homes has no physical office or shelter, but relies on a network of volunteers and foster owners in the region to support the animals until they can find permanent homes. At the race, dogs sporting blue bandanas represented those who’d been adopted from the organization.
One of those dogs was Great Dane mix Bowser, who came from Baltimore County with his adopted “sister” Gemma and their owners, Geoff and Sandy Ott. Bowser and Geoff planned to do the 1-mile walk, while Gemma and Sandy went for the run. Even after the race, Gemma energetically hopped around. Sandy was a bit more tired.
Bowser came to them from Operation Paws for Homes after he was allegedly found chasing horses and chickens. Sandy doesn’t quite believe that story.
“The only chicken I’ve seen him chase is barbecue,” she said jokingly.
A fluffy senior dog named Susie Q, donning a Wonder Woman dress, came from D.C. with owner Tracey Newberry for their sixth entrance into the event. Newberry adopted her from Operation Paws for Homes 10 years ago.
“When I got her she was scared of everything,” Newberry said as Susie Q rolled on the grass and leaned against a stranger’s legs. “Now she’s the center of attention.”
Newberry swears Susie Q has learned the word, “dress,” and loves getting dressed up for their outings. They planned to walk the race, since Susie Q’s getting a bit older.
While most dogs crossed the finish line four legs at a time, Buddy the Bluetick Coonhound did it on three. He’s been without one of his back legs since he was about 4 months old, after a logging truck hit him while he was bear hunting, according to his owner Laura Beck, of Westminster. She’s co-founder of the Carroll County-based nonprofit, HoundPilot, which combines aviation with dog rescue.
After the amputation, Buddy came to Beck’s family to be fostered, but they decided to keep him. At about 2 years old, Buddy seemed to accomplish the 5K with ease.
The first six-legged duo to cross the finish line in the 5K were Parkton resident Jeremy Fair and his dog Hammer.
“There’s good companionship here,” Fair said, pouring out a water bottle for Hammer. It was their first time at the event, and he complimented it highly.
Fair’s wife Sarah and their other dog, Char, also competed. Their race was still underway as Jeremy Fair and Hammer lapped up water outside the finish line. Sarah Fair went on to be the first female finisher overall with a dog. Start times were staggered to allow for physical distancing.
The race was offered virtually and in-person, Grese said; she expected around 175 people at the park. To discourage people from lingering, they altered the auction to a “donate and dash” option. Instead of making a bid and waiting to announce the winner, participants simply donated a set amount for the items they wanted and checked out immediately. Vendors spaced out their tables on the ample grassy lawn.
To replace the awards ceremony, top finishers picked up their medals and dog gift bags underneath a tent. Hand sanitizer was plentiful, and masks were required to start and finish the race and in areas outside the path.
As Grese detailed the planning that went into the event, a man came up to Grese to thank her for helping him adopt his dog. Grese was thrilled to hear how the once-anxious pup had improved. She said their case was a perfect example of the work they do. Animals can’t tell their rescuers what they’ve been through, Grese said, but the nonprofit identifies any behavior concerns and does all it can to overcome those hurdles.
“They need us,” Grese said. “If we don’t do it, who’s going to help them?”