LARGO — Karen Altieri's Christmas cheer has four legs and a penchant for carrying her shoes around her Largo back yard. That's Christmas, a 1-year-old female pit bull mix with a short, dark brown coat. She doesn't know it yet, but there's a beef marrow bone from Santa that has her name on it.
Altieri and her husband, Jan Majewski, both volunteers at Pinellas County Animal Services, took in the dog for two days as part of the shelter's Operation: Home for the Holidays.
Throughout December, Altieri and other Animal Services volunteers worked alongside the staff to empty out the adoption kennel so all of the dogs would have homes on Christmas Eve.
At the start of this week, seven adoptable dogs remained at the shelter. The operation came down to the wire Monday afternoon, but Animal Services director Maureen Freaney and her team were able to send all of the dogs home with families before closing time. Some dogs have permanent homes, while the rest will return Thursday after a temporary reprieve from shelter life with a foster family.
"That wagging tail makes me feel really good," Altieri said. "It's giving back, but I think she's the one giving us the joy."
Each year, the shelter takes in as many as 15,000 rescued dogs and cats. Besides all of the dogs at the shelter, at any given time there are 100 to 120 dogs living in foster homes, awaiting adoption.
"To set a goal like this and to get these dogs out right down to the last one to have a place for Christmas, it was kind of unexplainable," Freaney said. "Everyone was just so pumped up."
Freaney attributed the success to a combined effort of staff, volunteers and the shelter's partner organizations, which also put up pets for adoption. But the most critical piece, she said, is generous families.
"The best shelter is a caring community," she said.
Shelter staff will use the empty adoption kennel, a rare sight, as a chance to give it a thorough cleaning before the dogs return.
Christmas was one of the last dogs to leave Tuesday. Altieri and Majewski don't have children to visit, so they make a point of keeping animals company at the shelter and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. They first met Christmas on Thanksgiving Day, when they took her for a walk at the shelter.
Fellow volunteer and Largo resident Gene Sanita and his partner, John Genest, hung up an extra stocking this year filled with toys and treats for the dog they're fostering during program. Dancer, almost 2, is a pit bull mix who has been playing nice with their dogs, Molly and Sadie.
Sanita, a volunteer at Animal Services, said that Dancer's quality of life improves just by leaving the kennel for a couple of days. She has room to run, and other dogs and humans to play with. At the kennel, if he's the only volunteer on duty during a weekday morning, Dancer only gets outside once.
"So many times I go back in those kennels, and you look in their eyes and they just want to be loved," he said. "For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they've got a place to be loved."
On Thursday, when Altieri and Sanita part with the dogs they are fostering, they hope that Christmas and Prancer will be adopted into "forever homes."
"My hope for Christmas — the dog and the day — my one wish is that she'll be adopted by a loving family who will keep the Christmas spirit alive for the rest of her life," Altieri said.
Julie Kliegman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.