It began with a heartbreaking walk on a beach in Puerto Rico. There, Chrissy Beckles saw abandoned dogs, starving. She spent a week feeding them, taking them to the vet and experiencing an epiphany she calls her "Oprah moment." Beckles decided to devote her life to these stray dogs, known as satos, on the island. That led to her founding The Sato Project, a nonprofit that has rescued some 6,000 dogs in Puerto Rico and placed them in homes. Sometimes, those homes are found because The Sato Project brings dogs to no-kill shelters. Sometimes, it's because the pups are seen frolicking on Animal Planet's annual Puppy Bowl.
Shortly after The Sato Project began in 2011, a caramel-colored pup was shoved into a cardboard box on Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico. The beach was accurately named; that box was intended as target practice. The Sato Project flew that puppy and her siblings to a shelter in New Jersey, where my family adopted her. We named her Dulce. (She is pictured at top.)
While no-kill shelters are havens for strays, they still have limited reach, unlike one of television's most-watched events. Sure, Puppy Bowl might have begun in 2005 as a lark -- alternative programming for viewers who aren't interested in (or need a break from) the Super Bowl. But almost immediately it grew into something much more.
"We put down some turf on the office floor and let some puppies go crazy," Erin Wanner, Senior Vice President of Programming for Animal Planet, told me via e-mail. "It was incredibly low-budget at the beginning. Now it's a pop culture phenomenon promoting dog adoption. There's nothing better than puppies. And who can beat puppies playing football?"
Certainly, nothing is as adorable -- no offense, linemen. This year Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog will host Puppy Bowl XVIII on Animal Planet and discovery+. Dan Schachner returns for the eleventh time as the game ruff-eree. (Hey, stop your growling at puns, we don't make the titles.) During the three-hour special, 118 puppies from 67 shelters play on Team Ruff or Team Fluff. The winner scores Chewy's Lombarky trophy.
And just like Super Bowl LVI, there's a pre-game show beginning at 1 p.m., where sportscasters Rodt Weiler, and James Hound, and field reporters Mini Pinscher and Greta Dane will provide the inside scoop on this year's Puppy Bowl Draft. Among the "Pup Close and Personal" recorded features is one on the Orange Twins Rescue, started by Ariana Grande, which follows a pair of Siberian Husky/Chihuahua mix siblings that visit Farm Animal Refuge in San Diego and meet goat kids. Baby goats and baby dogs, what could be cuter? Well, Sesame Street's Elmo stops by with his rescue puppy, Tango.
Don't discount the lure of the paw. Puppy Bowl XVIIwas the No. 1 cable telecast of the day among total viewers -- zero exceptions.
According to Nielsen, last year's Puppy Bowl ratings were up 14 percent from the year before. Puppy Bowl XVII was also the top social non-sports program, with over 382,000 posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. During the show, it became a trending topic on Twitter. Women viewers 25-54 were up 20 percent last year over the previous year.
Naturally, advertisers took notice. This year's sponsors include Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal, Bissell Pet Foundation, Chewy, GEICO, The Home Depot, Pedigree, Subaru of America, Tropical Smoothie Cafe and Wisdom Panel (a pet DNA test).
Puppy Bowl also represents one of those rare and wonderful times when the greater good perfectly meshes with a network. What could be a better fit for Animal Planet and discovery+ than saving puppies?
"We remind our audiences how an animal's life can be transformed when given a second chance and that animal shelters and rescues can be a terrific option when adding a new fuzzy-faced member to the family," Animal Planet's Wanner said. "We pride ourselves on working with as many shelters and rescues as possible."
The work pays off: Puppy Bowl has a 100 percent adoption rate!
Beckles of The Sato Project, who had worked as a boxer and in marketing, is keenly aware of the show's importance, citing how it's the perfect way to rebrand dogs no one had wanted.
"Millions of people are watching a puppy that somebody threw away, that deemed they were trash and didn't want, and so they have come from this little island in the Caribbean that people often forget is part of the U.S.," Beckles told MediaVillage.
Since adoption inquiries always spike with Puppy Bowl, The Sato Project has a planeload of dogs arriving Saturday, just before the game. It was one of those planes that brought Dulce from Dead Dog Beach to the Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter, tucked behind a PetSmart on a commercial stretch in suburban New Jersey.
My family and I were there because another rescue, Hershey, the happiest dog who ever lived (don't bother arguing), had inoperable cancer. After the heartbreaking experience of having him euthanized, I did what you're probably not supposed to. Crying, I drove over to that no-kill shelter, simply to be in the presence of puppies. This ball of fluff and attitude climbed over her siblings and stared us down, basically commanding us to adopt her. And really, who were we to argue?
That day my family became linked forever to The Sato Project. Dulce made her way through my favorite shoes (but was thoughtful enough to gnaw on only one of each pair). She's the self-appointed guardian of our block, enemy of all delivery people. Her muzzle is now white, though Dulce still has more attitude than one creature should. She's snoring at my feet as I write this.
Puppy Bowl XVIII will be telecast on Animal Planet and stream on discovery+ Sunday, Feb. 13 beginning at 2 p.m.
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