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Sing with me: I saw Maggie biting Santa Claus.

The jolly fat man may say otherwise, but I don’t believe him. I saw it happen: My dog’s black-and-purple mouth. His white North Pole gloves. Her tortured yelp. His wincing retreat.

Petsmart’s “Santa Claws” promotion is a craven attempt to vacuum up holiday dollars and garner cheap coverage from obliging reporters in search of that not-so-elusive holiday angle. I was game, but Maggie ain’t exactly a press hound. She shares some characteristics with a reporter: She smells. She investigates everything in sight, albeit with her nose. She has a tendency to bite for no apparent reason. But in Maggie’s world, Santa Claus is just a mailman with a beard and a red uniform.

It was supposed to be a sweet little event. For the past two weekends, the Alexandria outlet of

Petsmart, the domesticated-animals superstore, has transformed itself into an outpost of the North Pole where pet owners can have their cherished furballs sit in Kriss Kringle’s lap while Santa’s helper snaps a few Polaroids. For $9.95, you purchase a cardboard-framed picture and ornament with Fido’s beaming snaggle-toothed smile. Cough up a couple extra bucks and you get a digital version you can send friends via e-mail.

The money goes to various animal rescue organizations, including Chow Rescue of Northern Virginia.

Which brings us back to Maggie. Santa was already sweating in the dog-food aisle in the bowels of Petsmart on Saturday afternoon when they met. My shaggy 10-year-old sheepdog-and-whatever doesn’t like strangers—especially big men in red-felt suits who insist that she cuddle next to them for a photo-op.

“Come on, Maggie,” Santa beckoned, white-gloved hands outstretched, impatience still in check. “Come on.”

Maggie was busy sniffing the stacks of Iams and Purina that rose to the ceiling like skyscrapers—she played the part of the eager tourist, inspecting everything. She vibrated with expectation as she peeked into every plastic saucer in the dog bowl aisle. Nothing doing there. And she couldn’t have cared less about Santa Claus or his pet-store doppelganger, whom Petsmart has christened “Santa Claws.” He beckoned, using the same sort of charms that must convince reindeer to pull him around the globe. Nothing.

“Can you pick up your dog?” Santa asked.

Not likely. My dog doesn’t like to be picked up or jostled in any way. My dog has broken out of cages. Santa could do his own dirty work. And so Santa moved in, gripped a hunk of furry blond torso, and lifted Maggie’s 35-pound frame like Dean to her Torvill. Maggie yipped and slinked out of his grip real quick. Then she bit him.

Dead silence followed. I felt really guilty. My dog bit Santa. I asked him if he was OK. Sure, he said. I slapped the space next to Santa’s perch, and Maggie quickly hopped up, smiled for the camera, and leaped back down with a liver treat in her mouth.

“Maggie did wonderful,” Santa’s photographer beamed. Yeah, sure. Now we’re both getting coal, or dog turds, in our stockings.

Standing outside the Petsmart, located amidst the horizon of superstores along Route 1, Santa Claws looks glum. On a break during this unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon, he waves to passers-by. He tosses treats to unappreciative dogs—who give them only glancing sniffs.

“Hi baby,” he coos. “Hi girl, want a cookie? Don’t want a cookie?”

Yes, they want a cookie. No, they don’t want to visit with Santa. He grows silent as the dogs backpedal away from his advancing hands. He watches dogs piss and poop on the parking-lot islands. He nods at a man in a beige shirt and jeans who hollers a request for a “BMW or Lexus.” Mostly, Santa Claws stews in his suit. Still, he’s not bitter. Not yet.

Santa Claws, or Mike McBee (“Like a bumblebee”), is a

Pentagon man by day. But when he’s not preserving

our national defense’s telecommunications systems, Santa McBee rescues chows. It doesn’t take too many soundbites from Santa to figure out that he relates better with animals than with two-legged mammals.

“It’s the dogs I love,” McBee says, implying that perhaps his feelings for people are less charitable. He says he keeps “legally four” dogs at his home. He hints that he actually has enough to pull a sleigh, but is unwilling to divulge the true number. Virginia ordinances, he says, prohibit more than a few dogs per household. “Dogs are 100 percent love,” McBee says. “They give everything you give back. They’re like a mirror.”

Unfortunately for McBee, the dogs whose owners have dragged them down to Petsmart seem to love him much less than his chows do. He blames this on the dogs’ owners. He knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And the guy responsible for Maggie? I look downright criminal.

“Ninety-nine percent of dogs don’t have obedience training,” McBee says. He points to store customers who are being dragged around by their canines, dogs with ill-fitting collars, and the legion of critters who bark in his presence. McBee, offering up a little polar wisdom, says that animal owners shouldn’t treat their pets like little people.

But Petsmart’s whole philosophy turns on convincing owners to treat their animals like the most pampered of spoiled brats—and drop a bunch of money at the cash register in the process. The store has outfitted itself with a landscape that suggests the food chain in reverse. It’s a place where dogs get free treats at the checkout line, where bones and bowls are displayed at doggie’s-eye level, and where the animals are free to mark their territory with impunity. One sales clerk warned me not to pick up anything from the corners of the sales racks—dogs love to piss on the corners regardless of what kind of merch is sitting there.

Petsmart is the Fresh Fields of the animal kingdom. And in the roaring ’90s, loads of impossibly rich people have proved willing to throw wads of cash on items like a $119.99 Petmate Furrari portable dog cage or a $49.99 feeding table. And if they are big enough suckers to buy all the high-end doggie stuff, a paid photo-op with Santa fits perfectly.

By 3 p.m., Santa is AWOL. A customer waits for a Polaroid moment in the dog-food aisle, and St. Nick can’t be found. One of his helpers checks outside. No luck. A breathless minute goes by, and finally McBee appears. He’s been napping.

McBee goes through another round of photo shoots with dogs who hate his guts. Finally, he lashes out—not at an animal, but at a chew toy. He walks over to a yellow squeaky ball and smashes it over and over with his big, black Santa boots. The ball emits a piercing cry that grows louder with each stomp of his heel—eeeiiiiee, eeeiiiiee, eeeiiiiee. Santa’s dog-day afternoon has come down to him and a noisy chew toy. He finally loses interest, clops away down the bowl aisle, and disappears. CP