Big bucks in online world of wacky pets

City Talk | Julia Benarrous 11 Dec 2019

They have millions of followers on Instagram and generate major profits for their owners. For they are pet influencers.

Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Boo the Pomeranian and Doug the Pug are some of the internet's star animals, who do everything from supporting worthy causes to promoting major brands.

The death last week of Lil Bub, a cat whose tongue was always hanging out due to genetic anomalies, inspired a wave of emotion that highlighted the internet's power to elevate just about anything to cult status.

"She was a ray of pure joy," said a bereaved fan on Instagram.

Lil Bub rose to fame after her adoption in 2011 when her owner, music producer Mike Bridavsky, began posting photos and updates about her online. Her story garnered three million followers on Facebook, 2.4 million on Instagram and more than 800,000 on Twitter.

Bub's fame eventually caught the attention of US scientists.

In May 2015, researchers at the University of Missouri sequenced her genome as part of a project to determine what genetic variations had caused her adorable deformities.

Bridavsky also started a national fund for special needs pets, the first of its kind, with Bub as its face.

"Bub has made a huge difference in the world of animal welfare and in the lives of millions of people worldwide," Bridavsky wrote on Instagram, noting the fund raised US$700,000 (HK$5.44 million) for animals in need.

Over the course of her life, the Indiana-based cat lent her star power to multiple causes supported by Greenpeace and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

From 2013, Lil Bub was also the face of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, promoting sterilization and pet adoption as opposed to buying "designer" breeds.

Lil Bub "used her stardom to make the world a better place for animals," PETA said in a tribute tweet. "Honor her legacy by remembering her message: always adopt, never shop."

But while PETA campaigns director Ashley Byrne welcomes pet influencers' charitable ventures, she is adamant that the work must not be at the expense of the pet's welfare.

Nobody should "treat animals as accessories or frivolous possessions," she says. Instead, "it's important for people with animals who have an audience on the internet to encourage their followers to treat their pets like members of the family."

That, says animal talent manager Loni Edwards, is exactly what makes pet influencers so successful.

Edwards's talent agency, The Dog Agency, manages pet influencers of all species, from Bruno the fat cat to her own French bulldog.

"As a society, we've evolved so that we now think of pets as our children," Edwards said in a 2018 interview with Vox. "They're such an important part of our lives."

As of this year, American households owned more than 42 million cats and 63 million dogs. The market for pet products in the US earned US$72 billion in 2018.

Additionally, since Instagram launched in 2010, the word "cat" has been used on the platform 193 million times and the word "dog" 243 million times.

"Pets raise endorphins and make people feel happy," Edwards says. "They are adorable to look at and are easier to connect with than human influencers."

So influencing can be incredibly lucrative.

Lil Bub's fellow celebrity feline Grumpy Cat - known for her perpetual scowl - amassed 8.5 million fans on Facebook, 2.5 million followers on Instagram and 1.5 million on Twitter.

From 2013 until her death in May, Grumpy Cat served as the face of cat food brand Friskies.

In 2018, a California court awarded her owner Tabatha Bundesen US$710,001 in damages for violation of image rights after a company used pictures of Grumpy without authorization.

Just before her death, Lil Bub starred in campaigns, advertising, clothing and coffee for Black Friday sales.

The highly-commercial pet influencer industry could seem at odds with charitable giving. But Bridavsky says Bub had left a proud legacy of raising funds and spirits.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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