BROOKSVILLE — Some were small, some tall. There were smooth and fluffy coats of all colors. Many came decked in spiffy neckerchiefs or multicolored vests. A couple even wore sunglasses. Most of the four-legged critters at this weekend's fifth annual Pet Expo at Tom Varn Park were of the canine species, but a couple of horses and riders also strolled by. Hundreds of pet owners and lovers turned out — a thank-you by the Humane Society of the Nature Coast for community support of its drive to win a $1 million makeover of its shelter.
The prize is being offered by Zootoo.com, an Internet site promoting pet care and products. The first runner-up agency will receive $50,000; second runner-up, $25,000.
Among 23,734 pet adoption agencies nationwide in the running, the local Humane Society achieved an initial ranking of No. 5, guaranteeing it an award of at least $5,000. It is the only agency in Florida to finish in the top 20, based on points awarded for postings and hits on the Zootoo Web site.
Zootoo officials are whittling down the 20 to a final 10, to be announced April 7, and then will ask the public for a Web vote April 13-19 on the most deserving agency.
The process involves visits to each of the 20 shelters to judge their needs and community support.
Zootoo founder and chief executive officer Richard Thompson arrived Saturday for a shelter look-around. He was greeted at the expo with a rousing pep rally, chants of "We love Zootoo," "Yahoo Zootoo," "Save our animals, save our pets" and "Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate? Zootoo."
Thompson, having already inspected 18 of the 20 contenders, said from a dais at the park, "I've got to tell you, this is one of the best-looking crowds I've seen." Supporters cheered, clapped, stomped feet and waved posters.
Then Thompson, along with his entourage of videographers, still photographers and notetakers, was shepherded by Humane Society executive director Joanne Schoch to the shelter at Wiscon and Mobley roads.
He asked pointed questions and spoke of needs, saying as an aside, "I think I've become an expert on shelters."
Municipal water and sewage connections, currently lacking, are a necessity, Thompson said. Schoch told him such service is nearby. To extend it to the shelter, the CEO told her, "You've got to get local government involved and supportive."
He also noted the need for another 1 or 2 acres of space, more kennels and dog runs, and better signage. As for the latter, Thompson said, "Polls have shown that 50 to 70 percent of residents (anywhere) don't know where their local shelter is."
Completing his inspection — even including storage sheds for pet food, veterinary supplies and cleaning equipment — Thompson said, "There's a lot of need here. Older buildings, they need bulldozed."
But all of the shelters he has visited are in great need, he said.
"We'll be reviewing the logs," he said, gesturing to his staffers, who had flown in with him by private plane to the Hernando County Airport.
Thompson founded the cat food company Meow Mix. He sold it to Del Monte.
"I made a few bucks," he said. "Now I'm giving back."
Other pet agencies in the finals are from New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and California.
In support of the Nature Coast society's run for the prize, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, who grew up in Brooksville, sent letters of endorsement.
On Saturday, County Commission Chairman David Russell praised the society as "a hard-working bunch." Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that the society has earned the chamber's award for community service for each of the last two years.
"You're a semifinalist," Thompson told the gathering. Referring to the upcoming final vote, he said, "Keep up what you're doing."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.