On the second day of December, many New Yorkers were just beginning to get into the holiday spirit. But at Carroll Gardens Pet Grooming, Christmas carols were playing over the speakers and Santa Claus himself was on hand for pictures with dogs, cats and just about any other pet to raise money for charity.
This is the third year that Carroll Gardens Pet Grooming has had a Santa photo shoot for charity and the third time that Mike Neal, 52, has played the part of Santa Claus. As owner and partner of the grooming salon, Neal said he plays Santa because he loves dogs. Plus, he said, “I like to help out with the rescues.” Not a groomer himself, Neal works full time in construction. He does occasionally help with bathing the dogs, however, noting that it can be therapeutic. Asked whether this event is more about marketing than charity, Neal said, “I don’t know if this really helps the business so much. It’s more for us. We want to give back a little.”
Neal was joined by Mrs. Claus and a few elves. The groomer, and his partner, playing the part of Mrs. Claus was Amanda Leung, 39. His daughter, Logan Neal, 10, was dressed in a green elf costume. This was Logan’s first year helping with the event. She said she was happy to do it because she loves dogs. Also dressed as an elf was Ro Morrison, 66, the owner and operator of a dog training service called Proper Littl’ Pups. The groomer and the trainer frequently work together, sharing many of the same clients, and teaming up for this event each year.
As the event began, there was a steady drizzle outside but Santa and his helpers were optimistic that people would turn up. Neal said that he sent a text out the previous day to about 600 people to let them know about the event. Their goal this year was to raise $1,000 for the charity that they selected, Rescue Dogs Rock NYC. In 2015, the first year of the event, they raised $450 for Muffin’s Pet Connection, a service that provides cheap spay neuter services. After not doing the event in 2016, they returned in 2017, raising $700 for Pup Starz Rescue, a non-profit that takes dogs in shelters at risk of being euthanized and provides them with foster homes until permanent homes can be found. Morrison selected the charity this year, while Neal noted that they will be selecting a different charity each year.
The first client, Laura Daza, 25, brought Bella, a small brown poodle wearing a Santa shirt and a sparkly bow in her hair. Daza, Bella, and Santa made their way to the grooming room, where just the day before, a professional photographer came to set up the lighting and the backdrop for the scene, a bench surrounded by presents in front of a large wall covering of shiny ornaments and candy canes. At the entrance to the room, there was a table covered in hats, scarves, antlers and other decorative pieces to place on the dogs for the pictures. Bella got her pictures and Daza, a regular customer, made an appointment for a grooming before dropping money in the donation bucket.
Next up was Tyson and Marks, two large labradoodles. Their owner, David Choi, 43, is also a regular customer. “Since they were puppies, they have been coming here,” he said, before noting that they came last year for pictures with Santa as well. Morrison, who trained them, got them to sit and look at the camera, which she was manning for the day. “Look up here!” she said, holding her hand up as if she had a treat. The dogs looked up, tongues out, and Morrison got the perfect picture, which would be e-mailed to the client. Choi thanked them, confirming their grooming appointment for later this week, before dropping money in the bucket on his way out.
A representative from the charity, Rescue Dogs Rock NYC, showed up with her own dog to support the cause and get her own photos taken. Eireann Sullivan, 37, is the co-director of fund-raising and social media for the organization. She said that she volunteers about 20 hours a week after her full-time job as a senior medical secretary in a pediatric surgery unit. She joined Rescue Dogs two years ago because of her own experience with a rescue dog, Dubinsky, or Dubi for short. Dubi, a Dalmatian Dachshund mix, was there for his own pictures, wearing a sweater with Santa on it under a harness covered in tiny skulls and crossbones.
Sullivan said that Dubi was a puppy mill rescue and has anxiety problems. At 33 pounds, he jumped up on Sullivan until she picked him up and held him. “I told him at 40 pounds I’m not doing this anymore,” she said while Dubi clung to her. “I’m going to give him a Xanax because I think Santa wants to keep his face,” she said, before taking Dubi outside for a walk around the block.
Santa wasn’t worried. Neal noted that most of the dogs at this event were already clients, so they were familiar with the people and the place. They were also careful to pay attention to the dogs’ stress levels, giving up on costumes when the dogs just didn’t want to wear them, and being careful not to overwhelm them with noise.
With the rain continuing to fall, there were large gaps between clients. “I feel like it’s slow, but I think I felt the same way last year and it wound up being all right at the end,” Neal said, watching out the door. By the end of the day, they had seen 15 people, and taken pictures of 21 dogs. As for how much money they had raised, Neal said he wasn’t going to count it until after the second and final day of the event, this Tuesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Featured image: Smokey, a pomeranian poodle, posed for a picture with Santa. (TheInk / Sara Ohlms)