INTERVIEW: Let’s get ready to Puppy Bowl!

Teams Ruff and Fluff take to the field during Puppy Bowl XIII. Photo courtesy of Animal Planet.

There’s an annual TV event occurring Sunday, Feb. 5. Two teams of competitors will duke it out on a well-manicured field of green. There will be cheerleaders, a referee, touchdowns and plenty of fouls. The action will be brutal, physical, cutthroat … and so damn cute.

Forget the NFL and that passing trend of the Super Bowl. Puppy Bowl XIII is ready to rip up the gridiron on Animal Planet with Team Ruff taking on Team Fluff. Dog and cat lovers can tune in Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. for the celebratory game of rescued animals adorably tripping over themselves to score points and compete for MVP, most valuable puppy.

Awwwww.

“This is why I’m so honored to be part of the amazing show Puppy Bowl because it’s everything to me,” said Jill Rappaport, animal rescue expert for the TV special. “When they see these adorable, precious puppies … they really had a very difficult time to get on the road to Puppy Bowl Sunday, you know. It’s pretty amazing. Many of them they were dumped along the highway, left in the heat in boxes. These are beautiful, amazing, little dogs, and their lives were going to be literally ended because they had to be rescued. So the advocacy part is crucial; it’s key. I’m so proud of Animal Planet and Puppy Bowl for really shining a dire light on this situation, and, you know, the Pup Close and Personal, which is the area that I host, those segments, we really focus in on some of their incredible stories of survival.”

One story of survival involves Lucky, who Rappaport called the most genetically mixed-breed pup on the field. The dog is a combination of several breeds, including Chihuahua and Shih Tzu, and 100 percent adorable.

“She has three legs,” Rappaport continued. “Her leg had to be amputated. She wasn’t cared for when they found her, and she is in great shape now, beautiful little puppy and will have a long, healthy, beautiful life. But you know we focus on special-needs animals this year in addition to all of them being rescue and adoption. We have 78 puppies from 34 rescues across 22 states, including Puerto Rico, and so the messages are just wonderful and just will resonate in your hearts.”

Rappaport called rescue animals her “oxygen.” She sets out across the United States and travels from shelter to shelter to improve conditions and tell the many stories of these forgotten animals. Her quest, ever since leaving The Today Show as entertainment reporter, has been to change people’s perceptions about animals in shelters.

“I still have friends that look at shelter animals as damaged goods, second-class citizens, and I explain to them, first of all, an owner could have died,” she said. “They could have lost their job. We don’t know the situation that so many of these animals have ended up in. They [the pets] could have run away. They weren’t micro-chipped, and then they show up two states away. That’s happened. You’ve heard of dogs that came back to their owner when they found them eight years later. I covered a story on one of those dogs. You know, we never know the situation, but I will tell you that they know when they’ve been rescued. They thank you every day for it.”

Rappaport is the proud mother of five rescue dogs, and she said each one of them has added to her life. But those five dogs are the lucky ones. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 7.6 million companion animals enter shelters every year. There’s an irony with those monumental numbers and the big game on Sunday.

“With the Super Bowl, with any great event, a packed house is a great thing and a wonderful thing, and for a concert, a packed house is the best,” she said. “Sadly that’s what shelter life is. It’s always a packed house. I have never been in a shelter where I’ve seen an empty cage, and until we can get to that point where I can walk into a shelter and there’s rows and rows of empty cages, then I’ll know we succeeded.”

The actual dogs who compete on the TV special have already been adopted, so Rappaport recommends that viewers head to their local shelters to find other, equally adorable companions. Often, viewers see a commercial or TV special and want that specific dog, but the logistics of pairing that animal with a particular viewer are near impossible. Rappaport stressed that at rescue shelters there are so many more options, so many cute friends that the TV cannot display in a given time slot.

“People need to understand that what you fell in love with one on TV, you can fall in love with another one at your local shelter, so the message resonates not just the time we’re watching Puppy Bowl,” she said. “If they will open up their hearts and homes to these animals, it’s the best gift you can give yourself.”

Another feature of Puppy Bowl this year is the work of Embark, a company that tests dog DNA to find out specific breed information.

“You say to yourself, what the heck do we need that for?” Rappaport said. “A lot of people don’t understand when they get a puppy how big it’s going to be, what type of breeds, if they’re mixed breeds, which our puppies are. What types of breeds are in those dogs because some are more prone to hip dysplasia or different problems, heaven forbid, and if you know ahead of time what you’re getting, you can be prepared to give that dog the best life possible. And you also know how big it’s going to get. If you’re in an apartment, and you get a little 5-pound puppy, you don’t realize by looking at the paws that you might not know that that dog is going to be 70 pounds. You might want to rethink another type of dog, so this DNA testing by Embark was really, really special. We did a lot of things this year that were very unusual and special and again still giving you the cutest show on television.”

Jill Rappaport cuddles a puppy while talking about the importance of animal adoption. Photo courtesy of Animal Planet.

Rappaport finds Puppy Bowl a mental massage because of its addicting, adorable qualities. Her inclusion on the program is the continuation of a career that has brought her from the red carpet to the puppy gridiron. She started her entertainment reporting at CBS and then moved to The Today Show. While on NBC, her German shepherd, Jack, was diagnosed with bone cancer. She covered her pet’s medical saga on television and received numerous responses from viewers located around the world.

“I’ve always loved and always had rescue animals, but when we chronicled Jack’s story on The Today Show, it touched a nerve,” she said. “I went to my boss that day. … It was Jim Bell at the time, who is now in charge of the Olympics, and I said, ‘Stars don’t need my help; animals do.’ ‘OK, become our pet reporter.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t really love the title pet reporter. How about animal advocate?’ I was one of the first people to use that title. A lot of people were referred to as animal activists, but activist sounded a little strident to me. Advocate is what I am, and from that day on literally Jack became the ambassa-dog of hope for animal cancer. His book is in schools across the country, and I became what I’m referred to now as the voice for the voiceless. It really is my oxygen.”

Over the years, Rappaport has had to convince TV producers to cover these sometimes difficult, painful stories about forgotten animals. There was resistance because of the depressing circumstances of so many dogs and cats.

“I had a lot of producers that wouldn’t even want to do my segments with me because they said it was too tough to go into the shelter,” she said. “They couldn’t handle it. I said, ‘If you think it’s tough for you, how do you think it is for them?’ And I always say, if you can’t get people in, you can’t get the animals out. So we really have to make the shelters more palatable. We have to raise awareness through wonderful shows like Puppy Bowl to make people understand that, you know what, yes, it’s sad, but it’s wonderful when you go in and you find your fur angel, your companion because they become members of the family. For me, it’s the most important thing in my life. Every day I’m doing advocacy work for animals somewhere at some point and trying to make a wonderful home, a wonderful connection, which is what it’s all about for me.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Puppy Bowl XIII airs Sunday, Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. on Animal Planet. Click here for more information. Click here for Hollywood Soapbox’s previous interviews on past Puppy Bowls.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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