Sunday, April 22, 2012 | 7:36 p.m.
The festivities had all the makings of a date auction for charity, except the suitors wore collars and leashes and eyed potential matches from artificial turf.
If their good looks weren't enough, their bios were an attempt to woo future bidders in the audience:
Good with kids.
Perfect companion for running and hiking.
Likes car rides.
Loves to snuggle.
If every person has a soul mate, then every dog must have a meant-to-be family. From big to small, hairy to hairless and calm to curious, 50 dogs from The Animal Foundation put their best paw forward Sunday at the ninth-annual "Best in Show" fundraiser.
"A lot of people think about shelter dogs as dirty and homeless, and it's not true," said Catherine Walsh, a shelter volunteer cuddling 6-month-old Peanut backstage. "This is a way to show them off and get people to come down to the shelter to adopt more."
Each year, more than 50,000 animals find themselves in the care of The Animal Foundation, the largest single-site and open-admission shelter in the nation, said Christine Robinson, executive director of the non-profit shelter.
"My main message is learn more, get involved," Robinson said shortly before the show began. "The Animal Foundation needs you."
Unlike some social problems plaguing the country, Robinson said the overpopulation of unwanted pets has a solution — responsible ownership, spaying and neutering.
"The problem gets fixed out there," Robinson said, motioning to outside Orleans Arena, where "Best in Show" was held.
The event is the shelter's largest fundraiser each year, bringing in upwards of $300,000, Robinson said. The money helps care for the animals, in addition to supporting the shelter's programs and public clinic, she said.
But for the furry, tail-wagging critters backstage, the event offered hope for something greater: a home.
Perhaps that's why 4-month-old Artemis, a Pointer mix, tugged at her leash with boundless, excited energy. Or why Peanut, a Chihuahua who came to the shelter with an injured paw, gave gentle nose kisses to a volunteer. And why 1-year-old Toby, a Terrier mix, sat politely in his cage.
And then there was Rufus, a lanky St. Bernard mix, who appeared tuckered out by the awards ceremony.
Active-duty military members from Nellis Air Force Base walked the dogs — some of whom needed more cajoling than others — around the arena, giving the audience a glimpse of potential family members.
Audience applause nominated the finalists for the "Best in Show" award. In the end, 130-pound Rufus took the top honor and won a trophy filled with dog treats.
He seemed largely unfazed, at this point sprawled out on the turf floor with a tongue-flopping grin.
An hour later, the gentle giant had a home: The McManus family shelled out $1,600 at the subsequent auction to make Rufus theirs.
John McManus, accompanied by his mother and three young daughters, called the adoption a group decision, led by his daughters' chants of "Rufus" during the show.
The family has had big dogs in the past, but Rufus tops the height chart — surpassing his 9-year-old and 7-year-old twin daughters' waists.
As the girls flocked Rufus with attention, their grandmother, Jeanette McManus, shook her head and laughed.
"Wait until their mother sees this dog," she said.