Festival honors furry friends, benefits rescue group

o, what's cuter than a pug in a Halloween costume?

Try hundreds of them.

If you have any doubts, just head to the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Saturday and follow the sounds of barking to Pugfest 2005.

Last year's Pugfest, now in its 12th year, drew about 1,400 participants and just more than 900 pugs, said Brenda Megel, president of Southeast Pug Rescue & Adoption Inc. The nonprofit organization, based in Suwanee, rescues, fosters and finds adoptive homes for pugs and pug mixes. Pugfest is its primary fundraiser, and the event has grown through the years.

"It's gone from 40 people in a pasture to 1,400 people," said Megel, who has three adopted pugs, Rocky, Dewey and Shasta.

At Pugfest, you'll find vendors selling pug paraphernalia, pets getting their pictures taken with Santa Claus, a silent auction, bake sale and more - including a two-category costume contest where the competition can get downright hairy.

"It's hysterical," Megel said with a laugh. "There's lots of competition. It can get cut-throat."

"You wouldn't believe the costumes people make," added Randi Tucker, a SEPRA volunteer and adoptive mom to rescued pug Willow.

Some of the most unusual pug outfits they've seen at Pugfest have included two pugs in a Chinese take-out carton costume and a pug in a silk dragon costume. Then, of course, there's the popular peppermints (or "puppermints"), ladybugs ("ladypugs") and hot dogs (no explanation needed).

That's just the beginning, though. SEPRA's Web site, www.rescuepug.com, contains hundreds of photos from previous Pugfests. In past years, costumes have included pugs as cowboys and cowgirls, pugs as pumpkins and princesses, pugs as bumblebees and sunflowers, pugs in evening wear and Hawaiian garb. If you can imagine it, a pug has probably worn it to Pugfest.

Even pugs who aren't in costume get a chance to shine. Pugfest also presents awards in categories including curliest tail, most wrinkles, most gray, best kisser, best trick, most unique pug mix and longest tongue.

For the pugs

Amid all the excitement - and pugs - at Pugfest, it's easy to forget the event has a serious side. Funds raised from the event help SEPRA care for dogs in need of permanent homes, including ones that have been injured, abused, abandoned or have special medical needs.

Megel said SEPRA accepts all pugs and pug mixes in need and covers the cost of all medical treatment they discover the pug needs. SEPRA charges a $200 adoption fee for its pugs, but in 2004, the average medical bill for each rescued dog was $323, according to SEPRA's Web site. Last year, SEPRA found homes for more than 200 dogs.

Some pugs have special needs that put stress on SEPRA's finances. Two recently rescued pug puppies, Amos and Andy, have hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. SEPRA has already spent more than $5,000 on tests for the siblings.

SEPRA also rescued two dogs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Tucker knows firsthand about caring for a dog with special needs. Her pug, Willow, had to have a costly liver shunt and lost her eyesight in May. Despite the emotional and financial strain, Tucker said she feels blessed to have Willow in her life.

"She came to us for a reason," Tucker said. Her experience with Willow has made her believe firmly in rescuing dogs. "I'll only ever rescue," she said.

There's a simple reason why Megel, Tucker and the hundreds of others planning to attend Pugfest are so passionate about these distinctive little dogs.

"Once you go pug," Tucker said, "you can never go back."

n What: Pugfest 2005

• When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, 2405 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville

• Cost: $5 for adults; $2.50 for children under 12; pugs get in free. Proceeds benefit Southeast Pug Rescue & Adoption Inc., based in Suwanee.

• Info: Visit www.rescuepug.com

• Notes:

• There will be no adoptions, and no pugs will be sold during the event.

• Dogs should weigh less than 35 pounds, be more than four months old with current rabies shots and be kept on a harness or collar and leash at all times.

• Participants are encouraged to bring water for their dogs, as well as chairs or blankets to sit on.

n Attend Pugfest: The event is SEPRA's biggest fundraiser of the year.

•Make a donation: Give money online at www.rescuepug.com or send a donation to SEPRA, 3245 Peachtree Parkway, Suite D-109, Suwanee, GA 30024.

•Become a volunteer or foster a dog: SEPRA needs volunteers for a range of duties, from giving dogs a foster home to transporting pugs. Visit SEPRA's Web site for more information.

•Be a virtual foster: Help pay for the medical care of a specific pug featured on SEPRA's Web site. You can receive updates on your virtually fostered pug through a volunteer after it has been adopted.

•Consider adoption: Visit the Web site for more information on the application process.