By Lauren Lewis Innocenzi
She’s an actress, filmmaker, journalist, and humanitarian, but the latest project for Access Hollywood and Today Show correspondent Maria Menounos is more animal-related in nature: She’s serving as the human ambassador to the Mighty Dog Nation, a nationwide celebration of the “everydog” put on by Purina. Within the first few minutes of talking with Menounos, however, it’s clear she’s not just in it for the title. This celebrity is a big friend of animals, and she’s more than happy to shine her own spotlight on four-legged friends, especially those who need the most help.
How did you get to be human ambassador for Mighty Dog Nation, and what responsibilities does that entail?
I was approached by Purina because they know I’m a crazy, crazy passionate dog lover. I guess I’m someone who really understands the power of their mighty spirit. I just love [dogs], and I was really happy that they asked me. I think that I’m probably the only person who would accept this kind of title. It’s going to be fun. In April I officially launched the Nation. We had more than 250 dogs in my hometown in Boston. This summer I will be narrating the documentary with the three winners of the Mighty Dog Nation contest, and they’ll be appearing in the short film. A 30-second trailer [for the film] will be airing on Thanksgiving [on NBC].
What is the goal of the Mighty Dog Nation promotion?
The goal of this is to honor the “everydog.” You know, the Westminster Dog Show honors the dogs with beauty and perfect grooming and perfect everything. There are so many competitions out there for dogs, but none honor the “everydog,” the dog [who] makes you smile every day, the dog who brings in the paper for you, the one whose bark is louder than it looks like his little body can handle.
So the every dog is sort of like “the dog next door”?
Yeah. I mean their attitudes are bigger than their size. They should be recognized, and they should have their own nation. And that’s what this is all about.
You get to pick the winning dogs from the Mighty Dog Nation video contest. How are you going to decide on winners? I’m sure there are thousands of entries.
That’s probably not going to be the easiest thing for me because I think everybody’s cute. But I will be selecting the three winners, and I will have help from dog lovers across the country who will be able to vote for their favorite finalists online. So we’re definitely encouraging people to go to MightyDog.com to view the video submissions and help me out.
Are there any criteria for judging the contest?
You know your dog the best. You know what makes [him or her] special; the things that they do that make you feel good. My Standard Poodle always extends her leg out like a lady and swats me when she wants me to pat her and she wants me to pay attention to her. My German Shepherd, Apollo, will try to come in with this stick, and he’s so determined to get through the door, but the stick’s bigger than the door. You know, it’s that spirit that we’re trying to capture. So I’ve been telling people, whatever it is that your dog does that’s special, put it on film.
You talked about Apollo and your Poodle. Can you tell us more about your dogs at home?
I have a German Shepherd, a Standard Poodle, and two Bichons. Baby and Benjamin are the Bichons, Athena is the Standard Poodle, and Apollo is the Shepherd.
Do you have any good stories about them?
Well yeah. I could go on for years. They’re the most special dogs in the world. My Shepherd, Apollo, for example, was thrown out of a moving car, and I found him at the shelter and rescued him. He’s a pure white German Shepherd, one of the most gorgeous dogs you’ll see in your lifetime. When I first rescued him, the first day I left him alone he tore my recliner into little bitty pieces that were the size of my thumb. The whole recliner! A few different times I looked at him and was like, “No wonder they dumped you! You’re terrible! I love you, but you’re terrible!” And I would look at my boyfriend and would say, “He’s gonna save us some day. You’re gonna see. He’s gonna be brave. I know he has it in him.” And don’t you know, my two Bichons were running around the pool one day while I had someone house-sitting for me, and one of the Bichons fell in the pool. (No matter how many times I try to teach them the stairs, they panic, and they just keep trying to get out the side.) By the time my house sitter heard the splash and ran out, he saw Apollo reach in and pull him out by his neck to safety—rescued him. And he’s done it a few times since then. He’s my hero. He totally saved my baby.
Athena was a puppy mill survivor. I rescued her during a Today Show segment. You know, she was breeding babies almost every cycle, was beaten almost to death. She’s just so incredible. I always think that she is mighty because she went through so much trauma and so much hardship, and yet you would never think it. You would think that she always had it good because she hasn’t let any of it affect her. She’s always happy and loving and hilarious.
And my Bichons are just amazing. Like I said, I could go on forever and ever. They’re my life. They’re my everything. And I can’t imagine being without dogs in my life ever again.
Do you have any other pets besides dogs?
I have outdoor cats [whom] I feed. They’re feral cats. They won’t let me pet them. I’m definitely allergic to them anyway, so I’m glad they don’t try. I don’t have anything else. I definitely want more. My schedule is so crazy that it’s hard to manage what I have now. But if I had it my way, I’d have goats for sure. I love goats. I would have rabbits for sure. Snakes. I’d have everything.
So you’re an all-around animal kind of gal?
I am. I just love them so much. The [Mighty Dog] day back in April was so much fun. It was like one big dog park filled with different kind of dogs, from tiny, tiny 2-pound teacup Chihuahuas to huge Mastiffs—everything you can ever imagine. You know, I just love animals, and I love dogs, and anything I can do with them makes me happy.
I understand one of your dogs, Noelle, recently passed away. One of the biggest questions we get from our readers is about pet loss. Are there any particular ways you’ve been coping that you’d like to share?
It’s the hardest thing to go through because I’ve never gone through it before. I think if I could help anyone in that moment, I would tell them to reach out to someone who’s gone through it.
My friend Nicole, my makeup artist in New York—I was reaching out to people being like, “When does the pain stop?” because it hurts so bad, and the first two weeks it was like debilitating pain—she helped me through it. Every day she’s like, “It’s gonna keep hurting, but eventually you’re going to get back into a routine, and you’re going to move forward. But you’re always going to think about her.” It’s [helpful] to talk to someone who’s gone through it. They can help you deal with the emotions you are feeling at the time. … I think that the hardest thing is living without them. And for me, Noelle, she was beyond a Mighty Dog. She was the most special ever. She was quadriplegic. It was really [challenging] dealing with a special-needs dog: changing her diapers every day and giving her bum baths four or five times a day. Every time she went to the bathroom we had to wash her because her legs were crippled in the back, so everything would kind of get stuck. There were cribs all over the house. We had the “No Poodle Left Behind Act.” She was never alone. So it was a huge, huge loss, but I feel like with her, she kind of did her job here, and she left at the time she needed to leave. I’ve gotten infinitely busier since. And that’s helped. Staying busy helps. Having the other dogs helps. … Hopefully you have another pet you can throw your attention toward, and you can get through it with [him or her]. And always be there for other people when they’re [facing this]. Any time something like this happened at work, I would be crying with them and be there for them, because it is horribly painful. And unless you’re an animal lover or a dog lover, people really kind of scoff at you for being as sad as you are.
You are one of the founders and leaders of Take Action Hollywood, a volunteer organization that seeks to raise social awareness through the entertainment industry. How and when did the idea for this venture take shape?
It started after I got back from South Africa seven or eight years ago. I went there to do a three-part series on the AIDS epidemic for Channel One News. It was a pretty devastating trip. I buried an infant while I was on that trip [whom] I had held at an orphanage. And when I got back, I did what I could—I sent back clothes, I sent back money, and I realized there’s got to be something bigger I can be doing, and not just for this cause, but for everything. I reached out to my now co-founder Keven Undergaro and said this is what I want to do. I feel like film has such a lasting impression and the media business has such a power. So he helped me create it, and it was born from that. But I didn’t want it to be just one thing, so it’s an umbrella for everything. We do everything from dog charity work to children’s hospitals to everything.
You have several public service announcements (PSAs) related to animal welfare through Take Action Hollywood, including one that was recognized by North Shore Animal League. How do you think the entertainment industry plays a role in raising awareness for animal issues?
I think the entertainment business and celebrities in general really lead the way in raising awareness for any issue. Would people really be talking about Darfur if George Clooney wasn’t really passionate about it? That helps. I’m not saying that people wouldn’t [be talking about it], but you start to pay attention more. What Angelina Jolie has done for refugees is incredible. What Brad Pitt has done in New Orleans is incredible. The North Shore Animal League—again that is Beth Ostrosky Stern who is leading the charge for that organization. [Celebrity] gets people to want to be involved and help donate and to help volunteer. I think it’s a huge power.
Speaking of North Shore Animal League, at its DogCatemy Awards last year you filled in as host last minute for Richard Belzer, who fell ill. Did it take much convincing from Beth and Howard Stern to get you to step in?
Oh, are you kidding me? That was the funniest thing ever. We were standing there talking, five minutes before the show starts, and I look at Beth and she comes over (I was talking to Howard), and her face goes completely white. And I’m like, “What’s wrong?” And she goes, “Richard Belzer just canceled. He’s sick.” And I’m like, “So? I’ll do it. It’s fine.” And so I walked up onstage and said, “Listen, we’re all dog lovers here, which means we’re all family. So we’ll get through this as a family. I have not read any of the stuff before, but we’re going to get through it.” And we did. And it was so much fun. And I actually ended up taking home an award that night for Best Tail-Waggin’ Comedy. I was very proud of that.
Are there any particular animal issues that are close to your heart?
Oh, they all are. Pet overpopulation is a huge problem. Rescuing rather than buying. … There are the Michael Vicks of the world here [who] are fighting dogs. There are just so many. It can get as bad or as minute as maybe chaining your dog to the fence in the backyard. Would you do that to your child? Would you drive your car with your child not seatbelted hanging out the window? What do you think is going to happen when you hit the breaks? How many dogs get flung from cars when people are irresponsible and they’re not thinking? So I have a number of issues when it comes to animals. But I think the biggest thing to get across to people, if I was going to do one, is rescue. They’re not [in a shelter] because they’re bad. They’re there because their [guardian] went into assisted living, their [guardian] passed away, they had economic issues, they had to downsize. There are so many more legitimate reasons than not for animals to end up where they do. And I’ve gotten beautiful purebreds from the shelter, if that’s what you like or if you have to have [a certain breed]—I have allergies, so it certainly helps me. My Shepherd was an exception. He was about to get adopted and made into a junkyard dog, and I had to rescue him before they did that. So I’ve lived on many allergy medicines ever since, but gladly.
Have you done any other work with North Shore Animal League? What about other animal organizations, such as Green Paw and Pet Orphans, for whom you created PSAs?
I do what I can for all the organizations. Pet Orphans I’ve worked with more because they’re local here. That was the only thing I’ve done with North Shore as far as I can remember. I volunteer at the Glendale Humane Society. I’ve done a lot of “rogue” rescuing and adopting now.
Yeah. “Where do you belong? Because you don’t belong on the street!” I pop them in my car, and I usually find their home very easily.
So do you have any more projects for animal organizations in the near future?
With the economy being where it’s at, I’ve just been really trying to help get the message out on dogs [who] are in need of homes. We have a nice little network on email we pass along. I’m just trying to help get dogs placed at this time. But you never know what’s going to come up.
As an actress, filmmaker, TV news correspondent, and humanitarian, it seems like your plate is pretty full. How do you fit in time to spend with your pets?
That is a great question. I don’t have much of a social life. Actually, none really at all. So any off time, I’m with them. Like last night I worked until 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. I went home, popped the Celtics game on the TiVo, and brought all the dogs upstairs to the bedroom with me. So they’ll either get me throughout the day, or they’ll get me at night. You know, we just figure it out. I’ll take them to work with me sometimes. I think it’s safe to say that every breathing moment that I’m not working, they’re with me.
In the spirit of Tails’ Recreation Issue, what are your favorite activities with your pets?
I love to take them for walks. I love to groom them. I know that’s weird, but I love grooming them.
I bet they love that!
Well some more than others. Some of them like it. They like the cuts, and they feel better after. Some hate it. Benjamin hates it, but Baby loves it. She’s so good for her little baths.
We do a lot of photo shoots with them. They love them! And sometimes they get in the pool with me. That’s fun. Noelle was a really good swimmer. She swam every day to keep her heart strong because she wasn’t able to walk. And the Bichons get in. The big dogs, they won’t get in. They are so scared. … So yeah, that’s pretty much what we do.