MUTTS Comic Strip Creator Patrick McDonnell: “I Try My Best to Give a Voice to Shelter Animals”
According to the ASPCA, each year approximately 7.6 companion animals enter shelters nationwide – approximately 3.9 million dogs and 3.4 million cats. Of those, approximately 1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats are euthanized. Patrick McDonnell, creator of the phenomenally successful, award-winning comic strip MUTTS (http://www.Mutts.com), is devoted to helping shelter animals avoid that fate.
Growing up in Edison, New Jersey in the 1960s, McDonnell longed for two things – to own a dog and create comics. Alas, he didn’t achieve the first goal until way into his thirties: “My family had cats. I used to buy books on how to raise and train a dog but Mom and Dad never took the hint. They thought my siblings and I wouldn’t be responsible.”
The second goal had a much shorter gestation period: “From the age of five, comic strips like Peanuts gave me such joy,” McDonell said. “Charles Schultz was my idol. I knew I wanted to tell stories with pictures and words.” The artist began his career as a magazine illustrator, from 1978 to 1993 drawing the Russell Baker Observer column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He also created a comic strip for Parents magazine called Bad Baby and contributed to Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Times and Forbes. Now 60, McDonnell laughs, remembering, “I used to add to illustrations what I thought was a generic white dog with a circle around his eye in the background.”
An art director told McDonnell the “generic” dog was a Jack Russell Terrier – in the pre-Frasier days, a fairly obscure breed. When the comic strip artist and his wife moved to the suburbs they got their white dog, Earl, with a circle around his eye from a breeder. “It was before I became educated about shelters,” McDonnell explains. Not-so-shockingly many of the real Earl’s traits inspired his fictional counterpart’s exploits in MUTTS – i.e.: “a lot of napping, displays of innocence and love of life.”
Both Earls spurred in the artist much contemplation about life through an animal’s eyes. “There is some strange disconnection when people don’t realize animals have feelings. Children intuitively know animals are our friends. The main message of MUTTS is kindness and compassion and to make people have empathy that we’re all on this planet together.”
The more McDonnell’s eyes opened to what life is like when you’re less than one foot off the ground, the more he wanted to make that life better. “Two years into the strip I realized Earl and his cat buddy Mooch (inspired by a neighbor’s tabby) had loving homes and guardians. Not all animals are so lucky.”
Twenty years ago McDonnell began using his platform to help people see “how tough it is for animals on the planet. Imagine being in a shelter not knowing why you’re there – think of the trauma and the longing these animals have to be reunited with their owner or find a new owner.”
Each May and November MUTTS features the series “Shelter Stories”, basing cartoon characters on real life shelter animals. Throughout May and June 2016 PBS is featuring McDonnell in “Shelter Me: Hearts and Paws,” (http://www.shelterme.tv) hosted by Kristen Bell. The object is to encourage people to rescue rather than go to a pet store.
The comic offers evidence of the efficacy of his cause. “I drew a strip about a deaf dog in a shelter,” McDonnell said. My last line was, ‘He’s a good dog. Listen to your heart.’” A few weeks later McDonnell received a letter from the police officer who had brought the dog – caught up in a drug raid – to the shelter. McDonnell says, “The officer couldn’t get the dog out of his mind. After he saw the strip, he went and got him!”
In the PBS show, which also features a charming segment on a cat café that has partnered with Oakland Animal Services to provide a fun way to adopt shelter felines, sketchpad in hand, McDonnell visits Animal Care Centers of New York City. (http://www.nycacc.org). Taking in approximately 34,000 animals a year ranging from dogs and cats to reptiles, rabbits and wildlife, ACC ranks among the largest animal welfare organizations in the country.
McDonnell and viewers find a loving staff and volunteers devoted to making their four-legged charges happy and adoptable. For instance there are designated “play times” where the dogs go out back and play. McDonnell chuckles, remembering, “I was in a pen with seven pit bulls. It was such a fun experience!”
His beloved Earl died at age 19. His seven-year-old Jack Russell, Amelie, was adopted at the ACC, and not surprisingly, some of her quirks have made their way into the strip. McDonnell said, “When we first brought her home, we weren’t inside for two seconds before she started scratching around the cabinets like mad. In the third drawer, unbeknownst to me was a old ball of Earl’s.” Amelie jumped on the table, ball in mouth. She has barely dropped it since and in the strip Earl is now a little ball crazy.
Throughout his long career, during which he has collaborated with The Power of Now author Eckhart Tolle (http://www.mutts.com/guardians-being), penned eight children’s books and joined the boards of the Humane Society and Fund for Animals, one achievement stands out in his mind. McDonnell not only got to meet his idol Charles Schultz, they became good friends. “The day he told me he liked my strip, I could have retired!”
Happily for MUTTS readers and real life mutts, McDonnell, his strip and charitable efforts to better the lives of animals, remain an enduring passion.
“The adoption rate at ACC is a phenomenal 85 %. If we can get rid of the puppy mills and get people to go to shelters, the numbers can get even better!”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including “The Complete Marriage Counselor”: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists (Adams, 2010). Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.