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Humane Society, Panthers players team up for charity pet calendar

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The world is about to see a whole new side to the Carolina Panthers – including 300-pound Ryan Kalil cuddling a Chihuahua and quarterback Cam Newton cradling a puppy in one arm and calico kitten in the other.

Thirteen players, along with a few cheerleaders and coaches, are featured in a Humane Society of Charlotte calendar that goes on sale Friday. Some Panthers posed with their personal pets and others with shelter animals in need of adoption – which explains how 6-foot-4, 305-pound Jordan Gross ended up with a kitten named Cake.

Humane Society leaders hope the “Puppies, Panthers & Kittens ... Oh My!” calendar will raise $50,000 and help more than 3,000 animals annually, including hundreds of sickly dogs and cats rescued from puppy mills.

The idea actually came from Stephanie Rivera, wife of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who pitched it to the Humane Society. She then recruited her husband’s support, and he gets credit for finding players to pose with the pets.

Among players featured: Jonathan Stewart, J.J. Jansen, Thomas Davis, Jeff Byers, DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Charles Johnson, Luke Kuechly and Charles Godfrey.

One of the Riveras’ projects

The project is technically not an official Carolina Panthers’ charity effort, since the team’s management has its own set of charity goals.

It’s more a matter of Ron and Stephanie Rivera looking to give their own time and money to help out local charities. The Riveras, who moved here in 2011, have so far teamed up with the USO and the Ronald McDonald House for projects.

“We also wanted to do something to help animals, and I happened to get a calendar from the National Humane Society and thought: Why can’t we do a local one with players and shelter pets?” said Stephanie Rivera. “Ron loved the idea. He had done one before when he was a player, but it was not for charity.”

As for how they found the right players, Stephanie Rivera says she talked to their wives or girlfriends during meetings of a nonprofit group she helped start called Women of the Panthers.

Humane Society officials jumped at the idea, having heard of the success of similar pet calendars in other cities.

“Traditionally, animals don’t fall in the giving guidelines of many corporations, foundations and major sports groups,” said Shelly Moore, president of the Humane Society of Charlotte.

“We had been trying to find a way to connect with players, because we know how passionate football fans can be. They want to know more than just how many touchdowns a player made and how many yards they rushed for. Having players with their pets gives fans an insight into them as real people.”

Panthers and the dogs

In some cases, the relationship of the players and animals is telling, she said.

Panther Charles Godfrey is photographed with his own pet, a bulldog named Carolina, which Humane Society officials described as “the size of a tank” and prone to chasing the 210-pound player around the photo studio.

Ryan Kalil was matched with one of the shelter’s animals, a 10-year-old Chihuahua named Charky who was rescued in July from a puppy mill in South Carolina.

Charky was in such bad health that he’d lost all his teeth and had scars on his corneas.

“Ryan Kalil was interested and wanted to know everything about Charky’s story at the photo shoot,” said Donna Canzano, a vice president at the Humane Society. “You could tell by the way he held the dog that he knew it had been through a lot and was so fragile.”

Kalil didn’t end up adopting Charky, but someone else did. The dog now lives with a Charlotte couple, officials said.

The Riveras are also featured in the calendar with their own dogs, a purebred golden retriever named Fiyero and a terrier mix named Penny that the couple got from a shelter in the Chicago area.

“I always wanted a dog that would fetch my newspaper, and that’s exactly what Fiyero will do. Unfortunately, if he feels he’s not getting enough attention, he’ll start fetching everything else,” said Stephanie Rivera.

“As for Penny, she’s the one who pushes everybody else around. As soon as Ron is home, she’s on his chest trying. They’re just part of our family.”

Since the end of the calendar photo shoots in August, all but two of the featured shelter pets have been adopted.

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