PHILADELPHIA Forget whether the water level in the Delaware River would be adequate for Gen. George Washington's reenactor to lead a crossing. Or if the great electricity gorge of a lavish holiday light display would plunge a house or a block into darkness.

The greatest local suspense of Christmas came compliments of Philadelphia teacher Frieda George, 59, as she surveyed dogs in the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) Philadelphia shelter to find one to call her own.

"This is a hard choice," said George, who was with son Michael, 15, and daughter Adrienne, 26, who came up for the holiday from St. Petersburg, Fla., where she is working on her doctorate in marine science.

ACCT is a nonprofit that handles animal control for Philadelphia. Its facility on West Hunting Park Avenue is open every day of the year for adoptions, animal surrenders, and other services. Those long hours are needed; the organization takes in about 32,000 animals annually.

Christmas seemed the perfect time to up the ante and invite the public and the nonprofit's volunteers to an open house, where they could decorate dog bones, make catnip blankets for cats, and, shelter operators hoped, fall in love with an animal.

"Everyone's giving during the holiday season," Frieda George said, "and I thought I would give to someone who doesn't get much attention - animals."

After a slow start, the shelter filled with volunteers bringing in supplies for the animals, and people who came just to play and pet.

The outing for the Georges started as a suggestion from Adrienne that the family share an act of kindness on Christmas by visiting animals in the shelter.

The goodwill tour quickly turned into Frieda cooing over three canines. There were Marquita, the white Pomeranian mix; Joki the Chihuahua; and the furry Shih-Tzu mix Khloe, whose long hair camouflaged eyes that surely blinked underneath.

Frieda agonized, moving from one cage to another before finally taking Marquita outside to a fenced-in area. Then, her daughter fell for Joki, another Chihuahua, while Michael lobbied harder for Marquita.

As the Georges moved from cage to cage, the Formica family of Philadelphia - mother Vasti, father Tim, 7-year-old Isabella, and 4-year-old Caleb - arrived. Isabella and Caleb were getting a cat for Christmas.

They went into the cat room, its quiet a stark contrast to the deafening dog section. First, they took a liking to a kitty, who was quickly jilted when Vasti and Isabella met Maxwell. But after an adoption counselor took Maxwell out of his cage, his restlessness suggested he wasn't the right feline for a household with children.

Then they saw a big, white cat on a cushion in the room where calmer, older cats lounge.

He was the one, letting the children pet him. Caleb, dressed from toe to neck in Spider-Man apparel, seemed a bit less smitten. Still, after filling out an application and completing an interview, the family took the cat home in a cardboard animal carrier.

As they left the shelter, Frieda George still was mid-decision. She seemed to lean toward Marquita, but then daughter Adrienne pleaded for Joki.

In the end, there was no end. At least not on Christmas, it seemed.

"OK, let me think about it one night," Frieda George said.

All became clearer in the evening. When contacted, she said the family would go back to the shelter at 9 a.m. Thursday and probably choose Joki.

At the Formica home, Spidey settled in instantly - curling up on the couch with his new family as they watched television. "He's the best Christmas present we have had as a family," Tim Formica said. "It just really completed Christmas for us."

610-313-8109 @carolyntweets