Hannah Peters | Staff Writer
Pittsburgh got a little furrier this past weekend as pets of all kinds, from birds of paradise to potbelly pigs, gathered for the annual Pittsburgh Pet Expo.
With a wide range of vendors, activities and shows, animal lovers and their companions were in for a treat (or maybe a few of them.)
Pets and their owners flocked to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center last weekend for the self-proclaimed “largest pet expo in the U.S.”
Guests had the chance to witness (and hear) the diverse range of Pittsburgh’s pets as well as watch and participate in a variety of animal-filled experiences.
Attractions were offered on a frequent basis throughout the weekend – turtle racing, rabbit hopping, (dog) dock diving, National Dachshund Races and Pork Chop Revue.
Over 250 vendors set up shop for the three-day exposition. They ranged from companies specializing in pet food, treats and supplies to dog photographers, pet painters, service dog organizations and pet vacations.
Human goodies were also supplied by businesses like Patti’s Pastries, Black Dog Wine Company, Inside Out Cookie and Chocolate Moonshine.
Thanks to several vendors, even those without pets could get their fill of animal loving. Many, like Reptile Adventures and Heart and Soul Parrot Rescue, brought along their animal friends for visitors to interact with.
Setting out to educate the minds of fellow animal lovers was the Carnegie Museum of Natural History which offered guests a learning opportunity with their interactive animal experience.
In addition to showcasing a variety of their ‘animal touchables’ – furs, pelts, skulls and fossils – a few of their animal ambassadors, including Dorris the hedgehog, made an appearance as well.
Museum educator and animal husbandry specialist Jen Moreth explained the importance of the animal ambassadors and their role at the Pet Expo.
“They only come out for special visits. Their job is to teach other people about animals and how they interact with their environment,” said Moreth. “We stress that they are not our pets – they are more like our coworkers than anything else.”
Moreth says that this is part of the museum’s overall mission and reason for coming to events like the Pet Expo.
“We are bringing a little bit of the museum to you. We’re here to teach people about animals, a little bit about what the museum has to offer and to let kids and families explore,” Moreth said.
Additional animal experiences could be found at the Heart and Soul Parrot Rescue booth being run by owner Sherry Johnson, who shared what they refer to as their ‘bomb-proof birds’ that they brought along for expo-goers to handle.
“All the birds here are rescues,” says Johnson, “They are our ambassador birds – ones that we can pass to kids and know they won’t get bit.”
Bringing along a variety of birds, Johnson said that having their ambassador birds at the Pet Expo is an important part of their mission.
“Birds are the third most rehomed animal so we’re here to take care of them,” said Johnson. “It’s important to be here because it reaches a lot of people; a lot of people don’t know bird rescues exist. It lets us get our name out there.”
Johnson was especially appreciative of Rocco Lamanna, founder of the Pet Expo, for his efforts in creating a space for businesses like theirs to gain exposure and connect with other animal enthusiasts.
Without considering the praise from vendors and guests, Lamanna’s hard work was clear from the many smiles, barks, meows and chirps that filled the convention center.
“I’m the first one there on Thursday morning and the last one out on Sunday night,” Lamanna said.
The idea for a pet expo sprouted from Lamanna’s business, Sponsorship Solutions, where he works on several large-scale events like Glimpse of Little Italy Days and the Pittsburgh RV show. Out of all his projects though, he says the Pet Expo is his favorite, partly due to its impressive growth.
“It’s something we’ve generated organically and it’s grown to be the largest one in the country,” Lamanna said. “A lot of work has gone into it so it’s nice to see it pay off.”
From its beginning in 2004, the event has grown from 80 booths to over 300. Attendance was also on the rise – over 16,000 people visited the pet expo over the weekend, breaking a post-pandemic record.
Part of this growth comes from the pet owners and vendors that continue to return each year, like the Layne family who brought along Elvis, their one-year-old 140 lb Newfoundland. Penny Layne, mom to Elvis, said their love for dogs was why they have come back each year since its debut.
“We’ve been here for the past 20 years,” Layne said. “We love dogs – we have 10 of them. My husband likes to say he pays the mortgage on a big dog house.”
Layne explained that the variety of vendors and opportunity for new dog friends is a large reason for their continued participation.
“Elvis likes to meet new friends,” she said, “so we come to let them socialize and buy new treats, like the deer and elk antlers.”
Ultimately, it was the vendors’ and visitors’ collective enthusiasm of pet ownership that have allowed the Pet Expo to grow into the large-scale celebration it is today. Lamanna says it best: “Pittsburghers love their pets.”