August 18, 2012 5:15 pm  •  By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

Bigger than ever and bursting with crowds, Saturday’s seventh annual Pet Fest was a wildly successful circus of canine contests and animal adoptions.

Nearly 40 dogs and cats were adopted at the event in Caras Park, which is dedicated to the education of responsible pet ownership.

Shelters from around western Montana were on hand with animals, and all returned home with a significant number of empty cages.

By closing time, the Humane Society of Western Montana had adopted a whopping 22 of the 33 cats and dogs it had brought in hopes of finding new owners for the animals.

“Pet Fest is a huge opportunity for us to do a lot of adoptions, but also to reach out to the community and talk about our safety net programs that are designed to help keep pets in the home,” said Mariah Scheskie, HSWM program manager and dog trainer.

“This is great event for that,” she said, adding later in the day, “It’s been a good adoption day.”

Cheek to jowl with all the other vendors and shelters was Missoula Animal Control.

“We want to do more of these events so that the community knows we are more than the people who enforce dog licenses and laws,” said Nikki Munro.

“We do all of that, but we also take in strays, and we will spay and neuter cats and dogs and put them up for adoption if their owners are not found,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know you have to license your dogs, and a lot of people don’t know we are a shelter that adopts out.”

To help make pet ownership affordable and safe for the community, Missoula Animal Control offers low-cost spay and neuter services and rabies vaccinations every month.

Like HSWM, Animal Control has a website with photos of animals in need of adoption and more information about the services it offers.

Although the Thompson River Animal Care Shelter arrived late, the no-kill facility had adopted four of the nine dogs it brought to the event within the first 30 minutes of setting up. By closing time, two others had been adopted and several individuals were in serious discussion about taking home the remaining three dogs.

In and around the rush to their display, shelter manager Wanda Thorpe cheerfully answered questions.

“This year, the event is crazy busy,” she said. “I think this event is a great resource for all of the animal shelters in western Montana to get animals out in front of the public and into good homes.”

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The successful adoptions were, without question, the highlight of the event.

But the next best, according to the throng of pet lovers, were the always entertaining wiener dog races.

The low-slung dachshunds with stubby legs, floppy ears and giant eyes captivated a large crowd as they ran.

Divided into three age categories, the dogs competed in the “Little Smokies,” which included pups up to 3 years; “Frankfurters,” for dogs 3 to 6 years; and “Bratwursts,” for dogs 6 years and older.

While the youngest competitors charmed the audience with their baby faces and inexperience, it was the older dogs that really got the crowd going.

Bolt, a 14-year-old racer, might have been the last to cross the finish line in his race, but he won the hearts of the loudly cheering crowd when he finally waddled his way to the end wearing a grin and an off-center cape.

Afterward, owner Susie Estep explained Bolt has Cushing’s disease, giving him a large, low-hanging belly, which race announcer Missoula Mayor John Engen predicted might induce “uncomfortable chaffing” during the contest.

Proud of his accomplishments, Bolt happily acknowledged his new fans, who swarmed around him as his owners put him back in his wagon – named the “Bolt Mobile” – after the race.

“We adopted him from the Humane Society after he spent a night with us,” Estep explained. “His person died and he had never been around a lot of other dogs so we were asked to foster him for a few nights, but my son fell in love with him so we kept him.

“He’s grateful, and we love him.”

In the end, 9-year-old Slinky of Helena won the Bratwurst division in which Bolt raced.

At the medal ceremony, Slinky’s family smiled proudly as she accepted her medal.

“She’s getting a Big Dipper ice cream to celebrate,” said owner Jennifer Hermanson.

Kelly Harrison’s racer, Lilly, won the championship in the Frankfurter category for the third year in a row.

“We don’t train,” Harrison explained. “She’s just a natural at this.”

Roasting in the heat of the day, Harrison and her little wiener dog planned to celebrate their accomplishment by swimming and floating in the water.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.