BY STEPHANIE A. WILKEN, SUN STAFF WRITER
When you walk into Karen and Tony Ortiz's home in the Foothills, it's easy to see how much they love animals.
There are instant greetings from any one of their four-legged children: Bree, Holly, MacDuffy, MacKenzie or Starry Night.
But the littlest members of the Ortiz family aren't ordinary dogs.
Four of the five led the first part of their lives in unspeakable conditions at puppy mills, places where people breed dogs for profit, ignoring the quality of life for the animals before they're sent for sale.
"They call them livestock," Karen Ortiz said. "It's just a dirty little secret."It makes me cringe."
Since 2005, they've fostered 30 cairn terriers, helping dogs heal and get ready to be a part of a loving family. Ortiz does it through a national nonprofit called the Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network.
And now one of their personable pooches could be named the most photogenic pet in America.
Ten-year-old Starry Night is a finalist in the Bissell's Most Valuable Pet Contest, a national contest by the vacuum company.
The grand prize winner gets its picture on the Bissell box, a $10,000 donation to the winner's pet charity of choice and a "Perfect for You and Your Pet" $500 shopping spree, courtesy of Bissell.
Starry Night is one of 60 finalists out of thousands of entries. Bissell officials will pick the top five in April.
Ortiz said when they got Starry Night in July 2005, she was matted, filthy and had been covered in feces and urine. A chain imbedded in her neck had to be removed.
"She's been through a lot for such a little thing," Ortiz said.
Because she was bred so often, twice a year since her first heat, Starry Night also suffered hernias. She also had two torn ligaments in her hind legs.
Today it's hard to imagine the loving dog had such a rough first half of her life.
And now, she's quite the accomplished model, hamming it up for the camera in still shots, and even has her own YouTube video helping to promote the rescue.
All of the dogs stay with their foster families for at least two weeks, where they're evaluated and cared for before they joining their new, permanent families, Ortiz said.
But when they got Starry Night, it wasn't so easy. "Within two weeks I knew she wasn't going to go anywhere."
Ortiz called her mentor in the program, crying, not wanting to let Starry Night leave to a foster family. But her mentor said she's not the first foster parent to feel that way, and in August 2005, they officially adopted Starry Night - or Star for short.
One of the hardest parts about fostering, Ortiz said, is knowing the conditions the dogs came from.
"They really capture my heart. They've never known love.
"There are new sounds and news experiences. Everything from the TV to grass is new for the dogs. Ortiz said that's because they've spent their entire lives in cages, never going outside; never living the normal life of a dog.
Through repetition and routine, they nurture the dogs. Then the Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network finds them loving homes.
The adoption process includes an application, reference checks, a veterinary reference and a home safety visit. Ortiz said the process takes about two to three weeks.
The Ortizes' love for the rescue led them to enter Star in the contest. They're hoping to win one of the top prizes and donate it to the Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network so they can help more dogs.
One of their favorite things about the rescue network is they take every cairn they find. "They will never turn their back on a Cairn," she said.
Members in the network even scour puppy ads to help locate mills, said Ortiz.
She said she hopes sharing Star's story will encourage people to visit the Humane Society of Yuma when they're looking for a pet.
And if someone is really set on a breed-specific dog, she said she hopes they'll find a rescue such as Col. Potter's.And there's a saying to help everyone remember: "Adopt, don't shop," she said.
For more information about the rescue or how to become a foster parent or adopt a cairn, visit www.cairnrescue.com . To contact the Humane Society of Yuma, visit www.hsoyuma.com.
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