Since the dawn of recorded history, dogs have served as household pets and faithful companions to their owners and the families who house them. Today, they enjoy a special place in the hearts of millions of people who give them names, shelter, sustenance, and, above all, love and attention.
Here in the Greater New Orleans Area, the undying affection that people have for their pet dogs is taken to an even higher level. The canines have their "Dog Day Afternoons," being honored with parades during the Carnival/Mardi Gras season in which they are the stars of the show. They are dressed up in colorful costumes, hoisted onto colorful floats, and treated to a special day of colorful pageantry for thousands of people to see and admire.
In New Orleans, the cleverly named Mystic Krewe of Barkus-a play on words inspired by the superkrewe Bacchus-takes to the st.s of the French Quarter on Sunday, February 16, with dozens of dogs being pushed and pulled on elaborately decorated floats by their human owners or led along on leashes. Observing and cheering them on from the sidewalks are thousands more dogs and their owners, all caught up in the joyful spirit of the occasion.
On the North Shore, parading for its 26th year and its first year in Covington, the Mystic Krewe of Mardi Paws rolls out on Sunday, March 1, trumpeting the theme of "Beyond all Boundaries: Exploring Sea, Air & Space." The stars of the show-the dogs-will be attired accordingly, as will their human owners/escorts, in costumes consistent with the theme.
Here is a rundown of the two canine configurations:
The Mystic Krewe of Barkus
Founded in the early 1990s and holding its inaugural parade during Mardi Gras 1993, Barkus leads a procession through the French Quarter that started out as a "Let's try this and see what happens" experiment, according to Catherine Olivier, one of the krewe's founding members.
"We had no idea where this was going in the beginning," Olivier explained. "We were having fun with it and we still do, but I don't think any of us thought it would ever become what it is today."
And "what it is today" is one of the Carnival season's most eagerly anticipated events. Drawing a mostly local crowd and mostly local participants, the Barkus parade brings out some of the best of the artistic creativity for which New Orleans is widely known. The human participants, the dogs, and many spectators along the route get into the spirit of the occasion with clever, imaginative, and often intricately designed costumes to match the theme. "It's so creative the things people can come up with," Olivier said.
"We had about 50 or 60 people show up with their dogs outside of Good Friends Bar (at the corner of Saint Ann and Dauphine St.s), and we did a parade," Olivier continued, still referencing the inaugural event. "We had a lot of fun, and it was really good, and we were like, 'Wow! This is great! Let's keep doing it.'"
"Welcome to the Flea Market" was the first of a long succession of clever, play-on-words themes the krewe would come up with in the years that followed. Later ones included "Jurassic Bark" (1994), "Tails from the Crypt" (1996), "A St. Dog Named Desire" (2006), "From the Dog House to the White House" (2016), and last year's theme, "The Big Bark Theory: Barkus Goes to Comic Con."
This year's theme is "Bark to the Future: Barkus Returns to the '80s." Many of the dogs - and their owners - will be attired in 1980s garb, consistent with the theme.
Within a few years of its founding, the Barkus parade grew so large with participants and spectators that the staging area had to be moved out of the French Quarter and into its present starting point at the St. Ann St. gate to Louis Armstrong Park. Around the same time, the New Orleans City Council recognized Barkus as an official Carnival parade.
The Barkus parade is held annually on a Sunday, 10 days before Fat Tuesday. Emcees for the parade are former Channel 4 news anchor Angela Hill, presenting on the st. just outside of the Good Friends bar; and Channel 6 meteorologist and co-founder of the krewe, Margaret Orr, on the bar's balcony.
Those who have signed up for the parade are welcome to participate in the pre-parade and post-parade "Pawty" in Armstrong Park, from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. The "Pawty" will feature food, beverages, and live music.
The krewe's queen is nearly always a rescue animal, and the king may be, also, but it's not a requirement. Other "royalty" includes grand dukes and duchesses, dukes and duchesses, and a grand marshal. Year-round, the krewe officials are engaged in animal humanitarian efforts, and the krewe's membership dues and parade fees raised go toward shelters and rescue and adoption efforts. The krewe's rules and policies are set by a board of directors, all of whom are volunteers. Gregory Curtis is the krewe president.
For more information and to sign up for the parade on February 16, visit the Barkus website at barkus.org or follow them on Facebook.
The Krewe of Mardi Paws
Although much smaller in the number of participants and spectators than the Krewe of Barkus parade, the Krewe of Mardi Paws on the North Shore is equally dedicated to making their event a special one for the canine stars of their show.
The krewe actually owes its origin to Barkus, according to its founder Denise Gutnisky, who witnessed the second Barkus parade in 1994 and was inspired by it. "I started Mardi Paws just because Barkus was so fabulous, and we needed something like it on the North Shore," Gutnisky said.
One of the major differences between the two parades is that the North Shore is largely made up of families and residential communities, as opposed to the primarily singles-oriented Vieux Carré. The Mardi Paws parade is more family-oriented and less risqué than the Krewe of Barkus can be.
The first few Mardi Paws parades organized by Gutnisky took place in the gated subdivision of Beau Chene on the Mandeville lakefront, with the gates open to the public on parade day. In 1999, after a few years and considerable growth in dog and human membership, the parade moved to the public portion of the Mandeville lakeshore.
This year's Mardi Paws parade takes place on March 1, several days after Carnival officially ends on Fat Tuesday. The reason for that, Gutnisky explained, is that they used to roll on Lundi Gras, but they got rained out one year and rescheduled the parade for after Mardi Gras. "It worked out well for us. We got a lot of people to come out for it because people still want Mardi Gras even after it's over," she said.
The parade will roll out at 2 p.m., proceeding in a loop along several of the main st.s of downtown Covington, ending at the Covington Trailhead. One of the main reasons for moving the parade to Covington, according to Gutnisky, is the greater availability of parking, which lessens the distance parade-goers and participants will have to walk to
get onto the route.
And another reason for the move is that Covington is the home of renowned actor Ian Somerhalder (Lost, The Vampire Diaries, and V Wars). He is a prominent animal rights advocate who, in 2010, launched the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) with the goal of protecting animals and the environment.
Somerhalder is expected to be in attendance at this year's parade, along with regular celebrity emcee Randi Rousseau, from WDSU News, at the reviewing stand.
Royalty includes King Mardi Paws XXVI, Queen Mardi Paws XXVI, a grand marshal (human), a canine grand marshal, a celebrity mascot, a grand duke, two dukes, the king's scepter bearer, the queen's lady in waiting, two maids, and the queen's scepter bearer.
Other festive events of the day include a costume contest with rubberized "poop trophies" in a variety of glitter-embellished colors and a post-parade extravaganza at the end of the parade route with food, music, sponsor fun, and more.
For more information, including registration fees, parade regulations, and other details, visit the krewe's Facebook page or its website at mardipaws.com or call 1-800-634-9443.
Photo by: Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0