There will be a winner and a loser every Super Bowl Sunday. But at the "Puppy Bowl," it's always a win for animal shelters.
The show provides national exposure to the shelters across the country that provide the puppy athletes and the kittens that star in the halftime show, and introduces viewers to the different breeds and animals that need homes, animal workers say. Many shelters see bumps in visits from viewers who are inspired to adopt a pet.
"It raises awareness for our shelter and others that take part," said Madeline Bernstein, president and CEO of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles. "It shows dogs in a happy, playful, fun way, which makes people think, 'Gee, I could play with a dog too.' You hope it will also stimulate adoptions, and if not, at least a positive attitude toward dogs, rather than they are just hairy and smelly."
The "Puppy Bowl," an annual two-hour TV special that mimics a football game with canine players, made its debut eight years ago on The Animal Planet. Dogs score touchdowns on a 10-by-19-foot gridiron carpet when they cross the goal line with a toy. There is a Most Valuable Pup award, a water bowl cam, a new lipstick cam (it's in the lips of the toys), slow-motion cameras, hedgehog referees, a puppy hot tub and a blimp with a crew of hamsters. Bios on each puppy player flash across the screen during close-ups of the action, letting viewers know how to find each animal for adoption.
Most of the puppies, however, are usually adopted by airtime since the show is filmed months ahead, said executive producer Melinda Toporoff, who is working on her fifth "Puppy Bowl." But Bernstein said the point is to show that animals just like the ones on the show can be found at any shelter at any time.
"A lot of people have come in during the last year and said, 'I want a dog just like Fumble,'" she said, referring to spcaLA's player entry in "Puppy Bowl VIII" who earned the game's Most Valuable Pup crown.
About 300 puppies and kittens have been featured on "Puppy Bowl" over the last decade, according to Petfinder.com, the country's largest online pet adoption database that helps cast the show's animal stars.
"Shelters and rescues are at capacity, and pet adoption is the responsible way to add to your family," said Sara Kent, who oversees outreach to the 14,000 shelters and rescues that Petfinder works with.
The inaugural "Puppy Bowl," which was promoted as an alternative to the Super Bowl, had 22 puppies and was watched by nearly 6 million viewers. Nearly 9 million tuned in last year and another 1.4 million watched via video streams, Toporoff said. "Puppy Bowl IX" will feature 84 animals, including 21 kittens from a New York shelter for the halftime show, and 63 puppies from 23 shelters.
Only four of the puppies have yet to find new homes, Toporoff said. They include Tyson, Daphne and Sacha — three pit bull mixes from the Pitter Patter Animal Rescue in Silver Lake, Wis., — and Jenny, a terrier mix from the Pitty Love Rescue in Rochester, N.Y.
"I don't know if there's any bigger forum for getting something out on adoption. We make sure the message gets out there. We make clear that these dogs need homes and that all animals have come to us during the adoption process," Toporoff said.
Fumble, last year's MVP winner, was adopted before the show aired. Michael Wright, of New York, said he found out about Fumble's participation toward the end of the adoption process. He planned to watch this year's show to catch any flashbacks of last year's MVP playing his heart out.
"I'm not really a fan of football," he said, adding that he has renamed Fumble to Toby. "He fits the name Toby. He is so cute. I like the name Fumble, but I pictured someone dropping the ball. He wasn't a Fumble," Wright said.
Each year, recruiting for the show is a logistical challenge for Kent and her crew of 80-plus. This year's show was particularly worrisome because taping was scheduled for October 2012 — just after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.
"We worried about the puppies, kittens and hedgehogs that may have been directly impacted or unable to travel due to Sandy," Kent said.
The New York studio where the game was supposed to be taped lost power, but the taping couldn't be postponed for too long given how quickly puppies grow. Another studio further uptown that had both power and space was found, and "amazingly, the crew was able to reschedule the shoot for only a week later and all the animals were still able to attend," Kent said.
Bernstein said they try to find rambunctious, energetic puppies to enter in the bowl though even if a dog falls asleep on its way to the end zone, it can be funny. Puppies chosen for the show have to be between 10 and 15 weeks old, healthy and sturdy enough to be on the field with playmates. All breeds are considered because "we try to reflect what's out there in the adoption world. A lot of those breeds are mixed," Toporoff said.
Producers also were trying to find ways to incorporate older animals into the show, since shelters have more trouble finding homes for them than they do puppies and kittens, Toporoff said.
As with all reality TV shows, the behind-the-scenes casting can lead to problems. Viewers often come in seeking a dog just like one on the show, and "then the lawyer brain kicks in, and you have to make sure you let everybody know not every dog plays football," said Bernstein, who is also an attorney. "People will adopt the kind of dog they see in the movie and they'll expect their Dalmatian to know how to use a word processor and not understand that was a cartoon."
"Some dogs like to play more than others. But don't come in thinking every Chihuahua can play football," she said.
The "Puppy Bowl" airs on Feb. 3 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in all time zones and will keep repeating until 3 a.m. The Super Bowl starts at 6:30 p.m. ET and 3:30 p.m. PT.