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Three Cats from Miami and Other Pet Practitioners

Host: Mary Tyler Moore.

Host: Mary Tyler Moore.

HBO goes all Doctor Dolittle on us with this heart-yanking 40-minute interlude that does a convincing job selling the notion that certain cats, dogs, pigs, turtles, horses, rabbits and even stingrays can work therapeutic miracles on the morale of disabled kids and lonely seniors. If the premise itself isn’t necessarily original, the inspiring presentation is sure to empty the living-room Kleenex box in a hurry.

Taped before a live audience of humans and dogs (honest) in Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Performing Arts and presided over by a charming, appropriately cornball Mary Tyler Moore, “Three Cats From Miami” makes the point that animal contact is a more effective rehabilitator and comfort source than any synthetic drug. Critters are everything that humans aren’t: loyal, unconditional, nonjudgmental, emotionally intuitive and rarely on a diet.

Those qualities, taken in the right doses, send the spirit soaring.

Show unfolds like a mock awards telecast in promoting the efforts of the Delta Society and its Pet Partners Project, honoring animals whose efforts have helped the disadvantaged to hang on. A series of crisp mini-docs folded throughout the program illustrate that unwitting heroism with inevitable, if occasional, bursts of maudlin sentiment.

But helmers Bruce Gowers and Harvey Wang and scribe Peter Kaminsky clearly go out of their way to make “Three Cats From Miami” a celebration of life rather than the freak show it could have been.

Along the way, we meet Mo, a turtle born with a damaged shell who provides companionship to a boy born without legs; Natasha, a hound who supplies love and legs to a young girl forced to navigate life from a wheelchair; Dusty, a lap-rabbit who lifts the spirits of children with devastating burns; and Harley D. Swine, a Vietnamese potbellied pig whose presence helps the progress of patients with severe head trauma struggling to regain their speech and motor functions.

Buster, Flashback and Flame are the three Florida felines of the title, and they do their part for humankind here by bringing joy to elderly nursing home residents. Frosty, a horse, supplies physical therapy for Down’s syndrome–afflicted kids.

And perhaps most amazingly, Splasha, a stingray (a species not noted for its sweet nature), actually leaps up out of the water to kiss a boy with cerebral palsy, motivating him to get out of his wheelchair to exercise his atrophied limbs. It’s quite something to see.

Bottom line: Bash this show at your peril. One can quibble with the semi-sugary tone, but “Three Cats From Miami” is essentially a showcase for the human race at its compassionate best. It also effectively drives home the point that the creatures on four legs are, in many ways, more evolved than we’ll ever be.

Three Cats from Miami and Other Pet Practitioners

(Family special; HBO; Sun. June 28, 8 p.m.)

Production: Taped in Atlanta by HBO and the Delta Society. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; senior producer, Carole Rosen; producer, John Hoffman; directors, Bruce Gowers, Harvey Wang; writer, Peter Kaminsky.

Crew: Camera, Wayne De La Roche, Bob Richman, Dyanna Taylor; editor, Vincent Stenerson; music, Caleb Sampson, John Kusiak; sound, Glen Marullo, Eddie O'Connor. 40 MIN.

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