It's the one time of year that Tom Varn Park goes to the dogs — plus a few cats, birds, rabbits and other creatures.
The fifth annual Nature Coast Pet Expo is everything its title says it is — a two-day celebration of the special bond between pets and their owners.
"It shouldn't be such a rare occasion in Hernando County for people to get together in public with their pets, but it is," said Humane Society of the Nature Coast director Joanne Schoch. "We've been doing this for five years, and I've yet to hear of one complaint about someone getting bitten or stepping into dog mess."
In addition to an event for pet owners to show off their animals, Schoch says it's an opportunity for prospective pet lovers to find the perfect companion. Just about every animal rescue group will be on hand, including the boxer and greyhound groups, as well as the SPCA and, of course, the Humane Society.
"People can look around, ask questions, and if they see an animal they'd like to take home they can do that as well," Schoch said.
Schoch said attendance at last year's event was markedly up from the previous year, with folks coming from as far away as Hillsborough and Citrus counties to take part in activities like the popular Lure Chase, where dogs can run an obstacle course for a nominal fee, a photo contest and a pet fashion show.
Vendors with pet-related items will be on hand, as will veterinarian care specialists.
This year's event has special significance for the Humane Society, a finalist in a contest on the Zootoo.com Web site that will award the winning shelter $1 million for renovations. A judge for the contest will visit the Pet Expo on Saturday.
"They are very interested in what kind of outreach programs we offer in our community," Schoch said.
She invites visitors to the event to bring signs and placards to the opening ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday in support of the shelter's efforts as a no-kill facility.
The opening ceremony will include a "bowwow" brigade of pets and owners who have pledged monetary support for the Humane Society.
"Our main goal is to create more awareness when it comes to pet adoption," Schoch said. An area of the park called "Adoption Alley" will allow visitors to meet some of the many animals that need good homes.
Although it may seem that the event is "dog centered," Schoch said other pets are welcome as long as they are on leashes and their owners are willing to clean up after them.
"It's always a good time," Schoch said. "It's one of those events that always puts a smile on people's faces.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.