By Jack Minch
FITCHBURG -- They were have a barking good time at Coolidge Park, where the first annual Bark for Life was held to raise awareness of human and canine cancers Saturday afternoon.
Bark for Life is an offshoot of the American Cancer Society's Relay for life and teamed with Animal Care & Education to organize Saturday's event, said organizer Paul Cannavino.
Donna Leonard, of Ashby, took part with her dog, Boo, a 5-year-old American Staffordshire terrier mix.
"I'm a two-time cancer survivor and an animal lover, so I'm here for both," Leonard said.
Animals are important parts of cancer treatment and important for a person's well-being, she said.
Dogs and their masters took a lap around the park led by a 4-year-old chihuahua named June dressed in pink and riding with goggles in a pink, miniature Mini Cooper.
Music from a DJ and booths promoting the Paw Pack Adventure Club, dog massages and Leominster Animal Hospital added energy to the festivities.
Cannavino hopes the event will grow in future years.
There were raffles and even a bake sale, said Maureen Cormier, a board member with ACE.
"The first year is always tough because people don't know what it's all about," he said standing next to his yellow Labrador, Sienacq. "I think it's great we combined with ACE."
Walkers were donating in the names of their pets and friends or relatives, Cannavino said.
He brought in Jim Stuart, of Springfield, to review the first-time effort.
Stuart organizes the Bark for Life in Western Massachusetts, which is the second-largest nationally.
The attendance was pretty good, there was energy and it was a good idea to partner with ACE, said Stuart, who directs a regional task force training and motivating organizing teams.
"I think that's a very good foundation," he said. "Gardner has a very successful Relay for Life, so this is just going to feed off of it."
Geri and Dick Griggs, of Lunenburg, are frequent walkers in the park with their dachshund rescue dog Harley.
"It's quite exciting," Geri Griggs said. "It's nice to meet all these dogs."
Dorothea Baker, of Rindge, was volunteering with her golden retriever-chow mix.
She also does the Greater Gardner Relay for Life with a team of family and friends.
"We put a spin on our team," Baker said. "We're walking in honor of our cat that died of cancer."
ACE has been active since 2010 and incorporated in 2012, said Sally Cragin.
The group visits schools to discuss pet care and its responsibilities with students.
"The number of people here reflects the population of animal lovers in North Central Massachusetts," Cragin said.
Susan Avallone, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, attended the Bark for Life to promote bills the group is promoting in Congress, including the palliative care bill.
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