ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Bowen found the Snoopy to his Charlie Brown when a scruffy pup weighing just a couple pounds wrapped his paws around his neck at a North Carolina street fair four years ago. The little guy wouldn't let go.
Ezra, the Yorkshire Terrier, had seldom been held in kind arms.
The 2-year-old dog spent most of his life in a cage before he was rescued by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in North Carolina in 2012.
Now Ezra, a former puppy mill dog and recent Florida transplant, is a budding superstar with a loyal online following.
"When I adopted him, I had no intentions of starting a Facebook or an Instagram" said Bowen, 36, in his thick Carolina accent.
But there were the responses from people who wrote him saying Ezra's photos were a bit of cheer in an otherwise dark time.
"There's a need for happiness and there was a response to our little guy," said Bowen's fiancé, Rob Pittman, 27. "So, we made more photos and we got better at it. Now he has more clothes than I do."
Accounts on Instagram and Facebook show photos of Ezra dressed as Santa, as Snoopy in his Flying Ace outfit, President-elect Donald Trump and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michelangelo. The pooch has been featured in magazines and in newspapers. He starred in a stage version of "The Nutcracker" called "The Mutt-cracker" last Christmas.
This fall, Paula Deen (yes, the butter-loving TV chef) picked a photo of Ezra as the winner of a calendar contest. Ezra won a year's supply of dog food, which Bowen donated to the SPCA Tampa Bay.
Bowen, a medical imaging supervisor, and his fiancé moved to St. Petersburg in February. They said the pup hasn't reached quite the level of celebrity in Tampa Bay that he had in Greensboro — but there's still time.
He met Ezra in fall 2012, soon after rescuers removed the dog from a North Carolina puppy mill.
"He was taken out for one thing and one thing only," Bowen recalled SPCA workers telling him.
Puppy mills are usually large operations that house dozens of breeds with cramped cages and poor animal welfare and sanitation policies, said SPCA Tampa Bay managing director of operations Brent Bardell.
"The dogs are bred multiple times a year," Bardell said. "They often don't give female dogs a break. Their main goal is to pump out as many puppies as possible a year so they can sell puppies to pet stores."
When they first met, Bowen vowed that Ezra would never be trapped inside a cage again. He took him to PetSmart, where he picked out Ezra's first toys and a jacket.
The photos started as a way to tell his friends he got a dog.
"Otherwise, people wouldn't believe it," he chuckled. (Though, now his friends have a hard time picturing Bowen without his sidekick.)
On a brisk-for-Florida night, Bowen pulled out that first jacket, red and black plaid, before the two went outside. Ezra came running. He stood up and his tiny arms shot straight in the air.
"He actually likes clothes," Bowen said. "This is the part I wish people could see."
That's because Bowen has dealt with online commenters who don't think a dog should be dressed in outfits. But Bowen said Ezra likes the attention and is rewarded with treats.
Tucked away in the corner of Bowen's apartment are boxes of Build-A-Bear clothes. They don't fit the Yorkie perfectly, but with some light alterations they come close.
A small backdrop fashioned out of poster board leaned on the couch with a piece on the floor covered with fake snow, complete with two small white Christmas trees.
Ezra sat calmly in a Santa costume as Bowen took photos on his iPhone. The whole "shoot" took a few minutes.
After the Santa suit came off, Ezra slipped in to Christmas-themed pajamas. He nuzzled comfortably into Bowen's lap.
Before he met Ezra, Bowen never saw himself as a dog owner. Bardell said animal rescuers hope for animals to have the kind of relationship Bowen and Ezra now share.
"Working in animal welfare, you definitely don't come for the money," Bardell said. "You come for these type of outcomes with animals."
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.