At Cat Banjo, dogs get top bill.
Center stage this month: Cuda, a genetically deformed, rambunctiously healthy pit bull rescued and adopted 14 months ago by Julie LeRoy, a Durham County Animal Control officer who was off-duty when a couple approached her with Cuda, then just 5 weeks old.
That's right up Cat Banjo's alley. For almost four years, owner Debbi Cochran has opened the Cameron Village store's doors not only to local artists of jewelry and accessories, but also to dogs she rescues across the southeast through her organization, Animal Rescue Friends. So far, 50 have been adopted.
But the spotlight lately has been on Cuda, who soon could become a national celebrity.
On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Cat Banjo will host CudaPalooza, a community send-off for Cuda, who's headed to the June 24 World's Ugliest Dog Contest at the Sonoma-Marin County Fair in California.
"We were thinking: Scotty McCreery won the 'American Idol' title and brought it home to North Carolina, maybe Cuda can bring her title home, too," Cochran quipped.
There will be an art contest for area artists to create a portrait of Cuda,
Cuda, named for her resemblance to a barracuda, isn't going with just her, um, good looks and cuddly personality. She's got a social platform: Stop backyard breeding.
Cuda has all the markings of backyard inbreeding, LeRoy said. Her hind legs are weaker and shorter than her uneven front legs. Her spine is curved and her neck and vertebrae are fused, limiting head movement. Her shoulders jut forward and her teeth do, too. She snorts like a pig, walks on flat feet, wiggles ears that point in opposite directions and tucks a seemingly ill-placed tail.
Dogs like Cuda too often are the result of breeders trying to breed so-called designer dogs with certain traits, LeRoy said, going on to distinguish inbreeding from the more sophisticated and accepted line-breeding done by educated breeders. When apparent mistakes like Cuda happen, death is the usual fate, she said.
"It's an ugly little secret, this inbreeding," Julie LeRoy said, adding that Cuda's vet assures her she's in no pain. "These dogs are bred to look like that and then it becomes a big joke.
"Cuda was born this way. She just happened," she said. "It's a miracle she got out of whatever she was in."
At No. 32, North Carolina was in the bottom tier of the 2010 Humane State Ranking, an annual report of the Humane Society of the United States that compares the states' animal protection laws.
But HSUS also reports strides in North Carolina with recent passage of a state law that makes cockfighting a felony, a 2009 pet protection law and an upgraded animal cruelty law requiring puppy mill licensing and humane standards.
Ever since Cochran and LeRoy met, and discovered their mutual mission to end pet overpopulation and backyard breeding, Cuda has been a fixture at Cat Banjo. She even raised $300 for another dog - charging for kisses.
"Cuda is a wonderful spokesdog," Cochran said. "She draws a lot of attention to herself, which brings awareness to backyard breeding, and that ultimately what we'd like to stop. I fell in love with her instantly."
So did LeRoy's husband, Scott, who reluctantly agreed when his wife begged to bring Cuda home.
"We have four other dogs - all rescues," Scott LeRoy said. "But I don't want to see a dog hurt or in distress. So, I've gotten to be a big advocate, too."
Cochran's advocacy began after she, too, rescued four dogs in a Harnett County parking lot. She kept one and adopted the other three out. Now, she rescues dogs, gets them medical treatment and finds them homes, all with money from special Cat Banjo merchandise created for fundraising.
"We consider ourselves matchmakers," Cochran said of Cat Banjo's dog rescue. "Our rescue dogs meet hundreds of the people we meet. We know who's going to work with whom."