Has your pet been naughty or nice this year? He’ll decide

Published 8:01 pm Thursday, December 24, 2015

By Richard Chin

St. Paul Pioneer Press.

St. Paul — If you’re Santa Claus, it’s part of the job description to pose for pictures with kids.

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But how many Santas have hoisted goat kids as well as human children onto their laps?

Meet Bob Haedt, a veteran Minnesota-based Santa Claus who is a sort of St. Nick for all species.

In his career of nearly 50 years in the red suit, Haedt has developed a subspecialty as a pet Santa, making appearances in malls and humane societies for pet owners who think their fur babies should have a chance to tell Santa what a good boy, yes, what a good boy, they’ve been this year.

Haedt, 70, said he has played Santa to thousands of animals including dogs and hogs, cats and rats, parrots and ferrets.

Haedt, who grew up in Pine City, said he started doing Santa in 1969.

He had served two tours on a Navy destroyer during the Vietnam War after enlisting right after high school, and was working as an orderly at a University of Minnesota cancer clinic in the Twin Cities. He had grown out his hair and beard. Even though his beard was dark back then, someone suggested that he would make a good Santa Claus.

“I would do it at the hospitals,” Haedt said. Eventually, he got good enough to turn pro, landing a regular gig at a Philadelphia-area mall that would fly him out from Minnesota and have him ho-ho-ho for six weeks, up to 14 hours a day, every winter.

During one of those weeks, the mall let people bring their pets in to get a photograph with Santa. And, boy, did they.

In an album documenting some of his more memorable encounters, Haedt has a photo of himself with a massive yellow snake.

“I’m not sure what kind of snake it is. I think it’s a python,” he said.

There’s also picture of him with a turtle and a 3-foot-long alligator. The alligator is wearing a Santa hat.

Another picture has a couple of cats posed by pillows decorated with menorahs.

“These two little kitties, they’re Jewish,” Haedt said.

“This lady waited two hours in line to get a picture of her mallard duck,” he said of another photo.

Another Christmas moment has Haedt posing with a human couple plus their two dogs, a cat and a bird.

“There’s seven Shelties in that picture,” he said of another photo.

Guide dogs, service dogs, police dogs and military dogs, they’ve all come to have pictures taken with Santa.

“I have a lot of nice stories, a couple of sad stories, and a lot of pictures of pets,” Haedt said.

“I think the main reason I was really popular with the pets was because I have a lot of patience with pets, just like I would with children,” he said. “I understand that pets mean a lot to their owners.”

That was apparent at a recent volunteer appearance Haedt made at the Humane Society of Goodhue County in Red Wing.

Haedt held a 12-year-old Chihuahua/dachshund mix named Ruby Rya Ciccone while owner Liz Ciccone explained that Ruby was rescued from a hoarder’s house and had been used as a breeding dog in a puppy mill.

“She didn’t have such a good life,” Ciccone said. “I want her to have as many good experiences as she can.”

“I wanted her to come here to meet Santa,” said Jenna Hicks, who brought her boxer, Laila, to the photo session. Hicks said Laila is 7 months old, so “this is her first Christmas.”

Many of the dogs, cats and occasional rabbits and ferrets that met Santa were dressed for the occasion in a sweater, scarf or bowtie.

Merecedez Roedebaugh brought her long-haired Chihuahua, Kikianna, and her Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix, Jaxtin, in their elf helper costumes.

“I just buy way too many doggy clothes,” Roedebaugh said. “They probably have at least two outfits per holiday.”

Steven and Lisa Bruni got photos of Santa flanked by their rescue dogs, a golden/lab mix, George, and their shepherd mix, Nicholas.

“It goes on our Christmas cards,” Steven Bruni said of the pictures. They also post the Santa visit photos on the dogs’ Facebook pages.

“They’re just family. These pets mean a lot,” Haedt said.