'Circus' of fur hits the Mandeville lakefront for Mardi Paws

On Sunday, March 5, humans and their pets took to the Mandeville lakefront in one of the zanier Mardi Gras traditions. Every year on the weekend following Fat Tuesday, the Mystic Krewe of Mardi Paws walking parade delights onlookers as costumed pooches and their owners show off clever costumes, tiny "floats," and share beads and dog-themed throws throws with parade-goers.

Sunday's parade rolled to the circus theme of "Under the Big Top." 

The crowd was ample despite a dreary weather forecast as onlookers stood against barricades, sometimes two-to-three people thick along Lakeshore Drive.

The parade proceeded at a nice clip, reaching the reviewing stand at Lamarque Street just after 2 p.m., at which time celebrity Grand Marshal, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, gave a brief toast to our canine companions and his wife, Cher.

The parade's dog king, a 5-year-old Burnese Mountain Dog named Rocky, arrived at the reviewing stand where he remained as the parade passed. He sat royally atop a moss green divan serving as a comfortable dog throne. He wore a crown with a golden cape as he observed his costumed subjects passing by.

Following were his royal counterpart, Queen Snap, and a full hairy court.

Several hundred royal subjects then passed by in various circus-themed floats. Near the beginning, two women's marching groups also passed, including the Marie Antoinette-inspired, white-wigged "We Dats," who performed a brief routine in front of the reviewing stand.

Several minutes behind were the Pussyfooters, a festive pink and peach-clad women's parade group familiar to most for its active participation in Mardi Paws during recent years.

Yvonne Lockwood was watching it all. She was raised in Mandeville but recently relocated back home from Seattle, Washington after a 40-year hiatus. She said events like Mardi Paws remind her how great living in Mandeville is.

"I think Mandeville is such a beautiful and unique place that seems to celebrate life, the community, and its animals," Lockwood said.

She was there with a friend and a beautiful, heavy-coated, well-behaved German Shepherd, a three-year-old animal named Ayron. It was the first Mardi Paws for both.

"It's his very first parade," she said. "He seems to be enjoying it."

Lockwood was happy to catch her first dog throw, a Milk Bone in a small plastic bag, the perfect treat to reward Ayron for his excellent behavior.

The costumes and pull-behind floats, crafted of everything from grocery carts to child wagons, presented a motley collection of circus themes.

There was a huge Easter Bunny made of something resembling papier mache, pulled on wheels by a human wearing a creepily huge dog head mask.

A unique "spin" on the theme came from a unit called the "Big Top," a huge spinning top rolling near a retriever wearing a fancy golden cape.

There was a "Nickie the Magnificent Lion Tamer" float; a grocery cart topped with stuffed plush monkeys hanging from tiny trapezes, the whole thing pushed by a clown; and the "Krewe of Clowns," featuring a handsome "George Clowney," a Pekingese-esque animal wearing a jester's collar and riding in a large toddler-sized push wagon. Not far behind, a "strong man" paraded with a large blow-up dumbbell strapped to his back and accompanied by a beautiful gray Great Dane wearing a fringed cape.

At approximately 2:35 p.m., the skies darkened and the threat of rain loomed. The wind whipped up for a few minutes and a few light drizzles fell. The crowd thinned slightly as some, fearful of a full downpour, collected their folding chairs and departed. But within minutes, the sky brightened a bit and the second half of the parade continued with a slightly lighter crowd in the blocks surrounding the reviewing stand.

"Tiny and Tanner, the Terrifying Tigers" were pulled in a wagon by a "ringmaster" and did begging tricks that were met with exclamations of "Awww!" from the crowd.

One of the most interesting units of the parade was "Terror Under the Big Top: Killer Clowns," a creatively designed float pulled by a "killer clown" and bearing creepy circus imagery. The scary menagerie was dispensing flowers and dog treats and a tiny dog rode atop the circus wagon wearing what must have been the smallest clown costume ever made.

The most unexpectedly popular theme of the day was the "Human Cannonball," which of course, had a doggie interpretation. Many cannonball "performers" walked the route, including "Jolie the Canine Cannonball," who wore a dog-sized protective helmet and a red-feathered tutu as she rode placidly with her cannon.

In another incarnation, a man dressed in humorous drag, with ludicrously huge breasts and a purple wig. He pulled a "Canine Cannon," accompanied by a few dogs and a "krewe" of young girls in tutus.

Another fanciful entry, "Cirque du Puppe Greek Dogs: A Mythical Family Circus" was a ragtag group of Greek Gods and Goddesses in eccentric costumes that made little sense, but scored big in being the only unit clearly representing the more elegant "Cirque" style.

"We come every year, it gets better every year," local resident Jennifer Schoen said.

Someone else who attends every year is LaToya Pickens, who sat with a friend in a folding chair across the street from the action. She preferred to see the parade pass from a distance instead of huddled at the barricades.

"This is a really good organization, it's a nice cause," she said.

The event, which benefits local environmental and animal-oriented charity-- the Ian Somerhalder Foundation-- also provides support through concession sales to other local charities that serve animals and children.

Even Deputy Ron Olivier and Lieutenant Donnie Palliser, of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, brought fur. They came to march with Freya, a police tracking dog named a local "hero" in February for finding an autistic child who had gone lost in the woods.

"It was great, it seemed like it was a good turnout," Olivier, Freya's handler, said.

Even more so than for the "regular" dogs in Mardi Paws, a police animal is equipped to handle the excitement, crowds, and hundreds of dogs of parade day.

"It's part of their training," Olivier said, "because you want them to be acclimated to every environment, so it's not a shock to them."

Palliser, whose duties include serving as a Canine Supervisor, enjoyed interacting with the crowd.

"People are so fascinated by police canines and their abilities," he said.

Just then, a group of people walked up and asked to pose for a photo with the special dog.

"We read about what she did, and it was just amazing," a woman in the group said.

Little Freya took it in stride, and Olivier's comments about her no doubt reflect the general vibe of the day for all pets who participated as both paraders and onlookers.

"She loved the treats and attention," Olivier said.

Entertainment contributor Kara Bachman may be reached atkara@karamartinezbachman.com or via Facebook.com/BachmanWrites. She welcomes your news tips and story ideas.