01:40 - Source: CNN
Behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl

Editor’s Note: Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator whose work focuses on migration, human rights and gender equality. She is based in Mexico City. Driver is the author of “More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN —  

At any given moment, Dan Schachner, who has been refereeing the Puppy Bowl for eight years, can be found buried under a pile of puppies or shouting encouragement like, “Amazing work, Pistachio!” to a tiny white Maltese from Every Dog Counts Rescue in Indiana.

Schachner, an actor and also a dog foster parent, wants everyone who watches the Puppy Bowl, which airs just hours before the Super Bowl, to not simply enjoy the heartwarming nature of the games, but to learn more about the importance of adopting pets from local shelters and supporting rescue groups.

In other words, the Puppy Bowl isn’t just meant to be a frivolous distraction; it’s a carefully orchestrated event that seeks to raise awareness about the importance of animals and their health and safety. Each year, when people make the decision to add a pet to their family, they often decide to buy one. The Puppy Bowl, which puts every puppy who participates up for adoption, uses its platform to dare us to adopt instead, making the poignant case that adopting a pet is saving a life.

 Dan Schachner, the Puppy Bowl referee, holds up Pistachio, the Puppy Bowl's tiniest competitor, after he has made a goal. Pistachio weighed only 32 ounces when he was rescued, but at the Puppy Bowl everyone discovers that he is a fierce competitor for Team Ruff.
Alice Driver
Dan Schachner, the Puppy Bowl referee, holds up Pistachio, the Puppy Bowl's tiniest competitor, after he has made a goal. Pistachio weighed only 32 ounces when he was rescued, but at the Puppy Bowl everyone discovers that he is a fierce competitor for Team Ruff.

The Puppy Bowl may be succeeding in its mission. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, some 6.5 million companion animals enter US shelters each year. If those animals don’t get adopted, they risk being euthanized. In 2011, roughly 2.6 million shelter animals were euthanized. But those numbers have dropped to 1.5 million per year. Schachner, who has been moved to see more and more animals adopted each year, tells me, “I’m not saying it is because of us, but we are part of a movement that is increasing awareness.”

So, how does Schachner persuade viewers to get involved in pet adoption? I refer you to this year’s Puppy Bowl.

During 2019’s prefilmed event, which I covered, Schachner shared the football field with 93 puppies, 3 of which have special needs. The dogs were divided into Team Ruff and Team Fluff, and they competed for the Lombarky Trophy in a game that roughly resembles football but is mostly chaos.

A member of Team Ruff gets distracted during the game and stops to lick a camera.
Alice Driver
A member of Team Ruff gets distracted during the game and stops to lick a camera.

The halftime show featured a variety of other animals: dozens of kittens, some of whom jumped out of a large cardboard cake; a sloth eating pieces of fruit; baby porcupines who shyly chased each other in circles; a baby kangaroo who jumped in and out of a cloth purse backstage; and a capybara who was most excited about eating the corn on the cob offered by his handler. Youth volunteers lined the sides of the field and made sure no puppies, porcupines or other animals fell off the stage during the game.

Twenty kittens prepare for the halftime show, during which one lucky kitten will jump out of a giant cake.
Alice Driver
Twenty kittens prepare for the halftime show, during which one lucky kitten will jump out of a giant cake.

Where does the event get its star players? Every year, the Puppy Bowl includes dogs from many shelters – 51 in total this year. One of those is The Sato Project, which is dedicated to rescuing abused and abandoned dogs from Puerto Rico. Although the Puppy Bowl has worked with The Sato Project for years, this year the organizers wanted to include a dog from Puerto Rico in the Puppy Bowl and use his story to highlight the toll of Hurricane Maria on the island.

Shirley the rescue sloth enjoys eating fruit while waiting to serve as co-referee of the Pupply Bowl with Dan Schachner.
Alice Driver
Shirley the rescue sloth enjoys eating fruit while waiting to serve as co-referee of the Pupply Bowl with Dan Schachner.

To recruit dogs for the 2019 Puppy Bowl and raise awareness about the plight of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Schachner and other members of the Animal Planet team traveled to Playa Lucinda last summer. Unfortunately, after Hurricane Maria, many people were forced to abandon their dogs because they were focused on their own survival, and the shelters on the island have been overwhelmed.

After a natural disaster, human lives take priority, but it is also important to think about pets that get left behind. As Schachner explained to me, the trip to Puerto Rico brought home the toll of the hurricane on humans and animals: “There is still a lot of work to be done. My biggest takeaway from Puerto Rico was that the commonwealth needs more help.”

When the Puppy Bowl launched in 2005, the goal was to get all the dogs adopted. Since then, the organizers have expanded their mission to include highlighting the story of the dogs and the shelters that support them across the United States and Puerto Rico.

This year, puppies from cities like Miami and Houston, which have experienced natural disasters, will be competing. In sharing the stories of these puppies, the Puppy Bowl hopes to bring attention to areas of the country that have been hit hard by natural disasters.

Lola, a shar-pei playing for Team Fluff, regularly wanders off the field to lick volunteers' hands.
Alice Driver
Lola, a shar-pei playing for Team Fluff, regularly wanders off the field to lick volunteers' hands.

Schachner sees his job as referee as giving him the opportunity to let people know about the joys of fostering and adopting animals. It makes him proud to be part of an event that raises awareness about adoption. “Dogs … make us more human and they make us better people,” he says, before running onto the field to pick up and kiss Lola, a shar-pei from Florida Little Dog Rescue, congratulating her on a stunning play.

So, tune in – and don’t be surprised if these stories bring you to tears (happy ones!) and make you want to adopt a furry friend from your local shelter.