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Petaluma’s World’s Ugliest Dog title goes to sleepy, gassy Martha

Neapolitan mastiff Martha, winner of the 2017 World's Ugliest Dog title, with her owner Shirley Zindler of Sebastopol, during the World's Ugliest Dog contest at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, California on Friday, June 23, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

JULIE JOHNSON,

Like extras in an apocalyptic movie, the dogs walked onto the stage Friday at Petaluma’s Sonoma Marin Fair grimacing with bowed legs and crossed eyes.

They were toothless and lumpy, trembling and groggy. One animal could barely walk because of a persistent hairball hack.

Yet, for all their oddities, the group of 13 dogs couldn’t have been more adored as contestants for the coveted title of World’s Ugliest Dog.

“When I say ‘Monkey’ is something from a nightmare, I mean that in a good way,” said event co-host and radio personality Sheri Lynch about a bald Brussels Griffon.

This year’s winner was a 125-pound Neapolitan Mastiff named Martha, a sleepy, gassy wonder with red eyes and yards of skin layering her body, with silky gray folds from her face to her paws.

“Look at her: she’s about 300 pounds of skin on 100 pounds of dog,” said judge Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-based political consultant.

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In its 29th year, the World’s Ugliest Dog contest drew hundreds of spectators Friday to the Kiwanis stage at the fairgrounds in Petaluma during the five-day Sonoma-Marin Fair. Among them, a phalanx of reporters from across the globe covered the event with stories and broadcasts expected to captivate millions more people to view the snaggle-toothed wonders of the canine world.

The contest was emceed by Lynch and Bob Lacey, stars of the “Bob & Sheri Show,” a syndicated morning radio program.

Founded in 1962 as a loving homage to the sorts of dogs that could never win dog show awards but are nevertheless deserving of love and care, the event has a clear focus on animal welfare. All animals undergo an examination by a veterinarian prior to the show to ensure the oddities aren’t signs of neglect or abuse.

Martha was a rescue from the Central Valley that ended up in the care of the Dogwood Animal Rescue Project, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit. She lives with Shirley Zindler of Sebastopol, president of the rescue project’s board of directors and an animal control officer with Sonoma County. She’s about 3 years old.

“She’s just a bit unique ... You could say she’s ugly, but I think she’s beautiful,” Zindler said.

Martha is usually sleeping, but in her waking hours she’s an enthusiast with a tail wag that can shatter breakables and a penchant for flipping over the water bowl. She keeps the other animals in line, Zindler said.

She isn’t allowed to sleep in the bedroom because her sawmill snores are unbearable.

In the audience, Jack Faris, 15, of Petaluma snacked on a turkey leg and reflected on his favorite of the group: A mostly hairless dog with long wiry hairs on its head.

“It was kind of a cute-ugly mix,” Faris said. “They all were.”

Martha was by far the largest animal at this year’s contest — and was perhaps the largest to ever win, although organizers didn’t know that fact for sure. Last year’s winner was 4-pound Sweepee Rambo, a 17-year-old Chinese Crested Chihuahua mix with bowed legs and a blonde mohawk.

This year, second place was also taken by a local canine, a 16-year-old Brussels Griffon Pug cross named Moe. Moe, who recently moved to Santa Rosa from Oahu, leaned into his mother’s arms like a dog who knows how to relax.

“I don’t think he’s ugly,” said Moe’s caretaker, Miriam Tcheng, who works as a dietitian at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a position that has helped her manage Moe’s pancreatitis.

Third place went to Chase, a Chinese Crested-Harke mix who flew all the way to California from Wales.

Seated in the second row, Mimi Reddick of Petaluma delighted in Chase’s form.

“Look at that humpback,” exclaimed Reddick as the judges studied the mournful animal.

The judging panel was a three-person team headed up by Sobel and included Today Show correspondent Kerry Sanders and Paige Braddock, a comic artist and creative director at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates.

The judges narrowed the winners to the top three but struggled to rank the animals further. So they called on the crowd to vote with applause.

Martha was the clear crowd favorite. She’ll bring home $1,500, a trophy and a trip to New York City for media appearances.