How Mac N Cheese Went from Dumped Rescue Pet to a 2022 Oscars Star and John Travolta's New Dog

The California-based animal recuse organization Paw Works and Jamie Lee Curtis helped Mac N Cheese become the canine star of the 94th Academy Awards

Photo: Courtesy of Paw Works; ABC via Getty Images

Mac N Cheese the rescue pup's tale is a classic underdog story.

The newly adopted puppy had a rough start before becoming the canine darling of the 94th Academy Awards, where Jamie Lee Curtis cradled the little dog as she honored Betty White and her dedication to animal welfare during the In Memoriam segment of the Oscars Sunday.

"They were dumped in a box outside the Avenal Shelter," Chad Atkins, the co-founder and executive director of Paw Works, tells PEOPLE about the harsh beginnings of Mac N Cheese and her siblings — who were given food names like Hot Dish and Casserole.

The Avenal Animal Shelter is a rural shelter in Avenal, California, that works with Paw Works, an animal rescue organization in Thousands Oaks, to find homes for pets.

"For the past two years, about 90% of our animals have come from the Central Valley, which is where I was born and raised," Atkins says of Paw Works' shelter animals. "The Central Valley — we're talking Bakersfield, Avenal, Huron, kind of more rural cities — doesn't have the same accessibility to veterinary care and the shelter system. So for the past few years, we've been our animals from there."

Courtesy of Paw Works

So when Mac N Cheese, her three siblings, and her mom turned up at the door of the Avenal Animal Shelter, Paw Works stepped in to help by bringing the pets to their facility for health exams and finding foster homes for the entire furry family.

When the 2022 Oscars arrived, Mac N Cheese was the only member of her family that had yet to find a forever home. She ended up being the pooch picked for the big award show moment, thanks to a bit of luck and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Good Dog Animals, a production company for animals, was originally going to provide a trained canine for the Oscars segment.

"It was actually Jamie Lee Curtis who said, 'No, no, no, we can't do that. Betty White is known for her compassion for four-legged friends, and she was always a huge advocate of animal rescue. It has to be a rescue animal,' " Atkins says.

So Good Dog Animal reached out to their friends at Paw Works to find the perfect puppy for the spotlight. Atkins sent the company photos and information about several adoptable puppies Paws Works was caring for, and Jamie Lee Curtis chose Mac N Cheese out of the bunch.

Backstage at the Oscars

Atkins adds that Curtis also decided to give Paw Works a verbal mention during the Oscars In Memorium segment.

"She took it upon herself to add our name on stage in front of everybody, which I profusely thanked her because that was huge for us because it wasn't in the script," the co-founder says.

After Mac N Cheese's onscreen moment, Atkins held on to the puppy for the rest of the night, which he admits made it easy to start conversations with the animal-loving celebrities at the show. And while several people backstage expressed interest in adopting Mac N Cheese, it was John Travolta who "eye locked" with the puppy, held her for 30 minutes, said he wanted to adopt her and followed up the next day.

After talking to Travolta on the phone about the adoption process, Atkins says he packed up Mac N Cheese and her supplies and drove her out to meet her new forever family — he even snapped the photo of Travolta, his son Ben, and Mac N Cheese that the actor shared on social media.

John Travolta Adopts Dog 'Mac n Cheese' from Betty White Oscars Tribute: 'The Biggest Winner of All'

"So it's happily ever after for her now," Atkins says of the puppy's future.

Atkins hopes that this extraordinary moment of exposure for Mac N Cheese and Paw Works can help shelter pets everywhere.

"I really want to put myself out of business. In order to do that, it's really prevention and education. I can rescue dogs for the next a hundred years of my life, and I don't think it will really stop pet overpopulation unless you get to the prevention part, which is spay or neuter and vaccines," Atkins says about what he hopes people take away from Mac N Cheese and Paw Works involvement in the 2022 Oscars.

"I think the other thing too is to follow your gut, follow your passion. Because I think if more people do that, the world will be a better place. And whether rescue animals are your thing, just do something. Do something, whatever it is, to make the world a better place," he adds.

To learn more about Paw Works, including their nonprofit veterinary hospitals and hands-on volunteer programs (starting for kids as young as six), visit the organization's website.

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