CUTE OVERLOAD

The highly profitable, deeply adorable, and emotionally fraught world of Instagram’s famous animals

It was the cold, slushy week in Manhattan after late January’s blizzard and Chloe was dolefully eyeing the darkened studio where she awaited her call time. She wore a rose-colored cashmere sweater, a bridesmaid gift from a New York society wedding weeks earlier.

“I didn’t even say hi!” an assistant exclaimed, running up to Chloe’s side. “Hi, Chloe! Chloe, I follow you so much on Instagram!”

Chloe has 115,000 followers on Instagram. She loves traveling, fashion, and photo shoots, Loni Edwards explained, as Chloe sat with Sphinx-like patience on her lap. Edwards owns Chloe. Chloe is a dun-colored, miniature French bulldog who travels in the most elite circles of animal social media fame.

choosing reading over Netflix tonight bc my girl @loandthecosmos wrote the best pre-#vday book 🤓

A photo posted by Chloe (@chloetheminifrenchie) on

Since the days of Lassie and Spuds MacKenzie, there have been famous non-human actors and models. But just as reality TV ushered in a generation of people famous for being famous, social media has spawned their animal equivalents, household pets elevated to household names.

Animals at the very highest echelons of fame have NFL-size entourages. Jiff the Pomeranian (2.1 million Instagram followers), whose website describes him as an “extremely talented Movie Actor/Model,” has multiple emails for his management. None of them replied to my queries. Hillary Clinton once wrote an op-ed for Quartz, but we could not get a quote from Jiff.

 Hillary Clinton once wrote an op-ed for Quartz. We could not get a quote from Jiff the Pomeranian. 

Even pets with relatively middling-sized followings have access to opportunities human fame-seekers would envy: product lines, endorsements, guest appearances, and endless freebies. Managers are reluctant to discuss specific figures, but a general rule of thumb is that a social media star—human or otherwise—can command $2,000 and up per gig upon breaking the 100,000 follower mark. (Some of these pets have seven-figure follower counts.)

In some cases they are actually supplanting human equivalents. The eyewear brand Karen Walker recently hired as its spokesmodel Toast, the rescued King Charles Spaniel (344,000 followers) whose “wedding” Chloe attended in January. Toast wore a custom Marchesa gown and a $139,000 diamond necklace for the event, itself a promotion for the wedding registry site Zola.

Animal Instagram makes perfect sense, the place where America’s $60 billion pet industry and obsession with curated moments come together in an adorably fuzzy ball. And as with most things pet-related, the way we relate to it says a lot more about us than it does about the animals.

Friends in high places

The pet world on Instagram is as stylized and edited as the human one. Fur looks pristine. There are no litter boxes in sight. The lighting is perfect. Even animals on social media live better than you do.

 Endorsements, events, and advertisements follow, and before you know it your dog is out-cuting Selena Gomez. 

For many pets, social media stardom tends to follow an established trajectory. Owners create an Instagram account to show off photos of a beloved pet. The account draws fans slowly, until a big-break moment—a media feature, a re-gram by a celebrity—catapults the animal into the big time. Endorsements, events, and advertisements follow, and before you know it your dog is out-cuting Selena Gomez.

Canoodling w Selena @selenagomez @siriusxmhits1

A photo posted by Marnie The Dog (@marniethedog) on

Instagram’s animal stars include dogs and cats, of course, but also bunnies, guinea pigs, chipmunks, porcupines, pigs, goats, and capybaras. No matter how cold and cynical your heart, there is almost certainly an animal account for you. While researching this story I scrolled with professional detachment through dozens of photogenic pets. Then I found Hogybaby, a tiny hedgehog from Malaysia—with babies!—so face-meltingly adorable that I uttered an expletive at my desk.

While the most famous pets have media presences on Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter, photo-focused Instagram remains the favored communication platform for celebrities who can’t actually talk for themselves. Representatives for Instagram declined to talk about the number or popularity of animals on their platform. Once a week, the site spotlights a pet on its main account, a feature known as the Weekly Fluff. For the last two years it has produced a page-a-day calendar of featured animals as a fundraiser for the Humane Society.

One of the most direct beneficiaries of the cult of celebrity pet worship are rescue advocates. Famous pets who started life in shelters are great fundraisers for animal causes.

“With Holly I get a lot of comments like, ‘She’s too pretty to be a rescue,’” said Mary Williamson, a New York marketing professional who posts photos of her chihuahua Holly under the Instagram handle @LittleHollysBigWorld.

With just under 2,500 followers, Holly is a relative up-and-comer in celebrity canine circles. “We have friends in high places, but we are not in high places ourselves,” Williamson said with a laugh. Even so, she has appeared at fundraising events on behalf of the Jason Dubus Hiegl Foundation, an animal rights’ charity founded by the actor Katherine Heigl in memory of her late brother. Many organizations are finding animal celebrities as effective marketing tools as human ones.

 “People connect with these animals in the way they relate to people.” 

“Working with celebrity pets has been something we’ve [done] with a lot of different campaigns,” said Carie Lewis Carlson, director of social marketing at the Humane Society. “People connect with these animals in the way they relate to people.”

These animals’ reach also open up major commercial opportunities. A post for an animal like Boo, one of three adorable pups featured under the handle @BuddyBooWaggyTails (617,000 followers), can garner in a matter of hours nearly 20,000 likes and hundreds of comments in a dozen-plus languages along the lines of “omggggg!!!” and “I want this dog!” Since his introduction to the world via Facebook in 2009, Boo has garnered his own line of products, with stuffed animals, books, calendars, T-shirts, and Valentine cards.

i'm in a game! you can download and play my game, spot the difference, at http://bit.ly/Boo_and_friends. enjoy!!

A photo posted by Buddy Boo Blue (@buddyboowaggytails) on

Managing a famous pet’s schedule can turn into a huge time commitment, to the point that some owners are turning to the kind of management teams that used to be available only to humans.

“Nothing’s really been focused on the pet space,” said Loni Edwards, owner of Chloe the Mini Frenchie. “Most of these owners have full-time jobs. This isn’t their full-time thing, managing their dogs. They forget to reply, they forget to invoice, they don’t know how to negotiate.”

Edwards, an entrepreneur with a J.D. from Harvard Law School, has made it her full-time job instead. In January she opened the Dog Agency, a New York-based firm she bills as the first celebrity dog management agency.

 Animals can’t tarnish their brands with drunken missteps or offensive tweets. They are adorable, silent, and perfect. 

Marketing trends in recent years have “shifted from traditional ads on TV and traditional media to influencers people already have a connection to,” Edwards said. “Cute dogs make people happy and brands want their marketing to make people happy, so it was a natural transition.”

Companies from pet products to Barney’s New York have tapped celebrity pets for advertising. From a brand’s perspective, animals are ideal endorsers. They come with massive and devoted followings. Unlike human celebrities, they can’t tarnish their brands with drunken missteps or offensive tweets. They don’t get married, have children, start taking their art “in a new direction,” or otherwise alienate fans with the natural transitions that burst the fantasy bubble around human celebrities. They are adorable, silent, and perfect.

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A photo posted by Mr. Bagel the Chinchilla (@chinnybuddy) on

Two years ago photographer Elias Weiss Friedman started The Dogist, a photographic dogs-on-the-street diary that’s like a canine version of Humans of New York. It now has 1.8 million Instagram followers. (“He can make you,” one pet owner told me solemnly.)

“It’s an emotional thing, at the end of the day,” he said of the connection people have to his subjects. “It’s the same reason why people like babies. [Dogs] are very expressive and innocent and they don’t hold back anything. You can tell how they’re feeling just be looking at them. We trust that. They never try to represent themselves as anything else.”

“I’ve had people cry. Literally”

Translating an animal’s persona into a human social media platform is by necessity a team effort. Most pet owners attest that their animals have distinct personalities, likes, and dislikes. And those who become social media stars are to an extent a self-selecting crew—no matter how much an owner wants it, an animal that detests sitting still for photo shoots or fashion shows simply won’t.

 “They never try to represent themselves as anything else.” 

But setting up those opportunities and crafting the captions that distill an animal’s personality is, obviously, a human endeavor. Owners laugh about the sometimes-jarring experience of managing a social media persona that is both them, and not them.

For fans, it’s a lot less complicated. They love the dog—or the donkey or the capybara, or whatever—and are happy to ignore the human team orchestrating that connection.

Cappy Christmas Eve Capycrew! #tbt #capybara #christmas #capycrew

A photo posted by JoeJoe (@joejoe_the_capybara) on

A subtle shift occurs in the owners of famous pets when admirers approach their animals. They hold out their pets to be adored and fade away themselves.

“I’ve had people cry. Literally,” said Toast’s owner Katie Sturino, of fans’ encounters with her pet. “For me, the fan experience—and this may sound weird—it’s just really to let them have the moment with the dog. This is an image or a face that they see every day. No one’s there to talk to me.”

When you have a pet, you see the change in its temperament when you enter a room. You feel its heart beat as it lies curled on your lap. With Instagram pets, there’s none of that. It’s the difference between a relationship and an intense infatuation with a celebrity you follow only on social media. There’s a lot of projection going on, on all sides.

On this point, one of the savviest animals on Instagram is Wally the Bunny, an English Angora rabbit in Natick, Massachusetts. Wally’s owner Molly Prottas, 31, is a social worker. She started the Instagram account @Wally_And_Molly in January 2015 as a tool to spark conversations with her teenage clients.

Five months later, a website in Asia picked up Wally’s photos—Prottas still isn’t sure exactly who—and the account went viral. More than 221,000 people follow Wally now.

 “A lot of people will say, ‘I can’t tolerate when Wally is sad.’ What I want people to say is, ‘Wally is sad right now, and it’s OK.'” 

Prottas loves her bunny, but she’s also deeply passionate about social work, and is more attuned than most to the frailties of the human psyche. She’s crafted a persona for her pet with gently therapeutic overtones. It’s a subtle acknowledgement that the kinds of people who form deep emotional attachments to animal celebrities might need a little extra help connecting to other people, or to themselves.

“My goal is to have Wally be this character who expresses an array of emotions,” Prottas said. “I don’t want Wally to be this happy-go-lucky character. I want him to experience sadness and disappointment and embarrassment. A lot of people will say, ‘I can’t tolerate when Wally is sad.’ What I want people to say is, ‘Wally is sad right now, and it’s OK that he’s sad.’ We live in a culture where people deny sadness and emotions.”

So in between photos of Wally eating and cuddling on the couch are exercises in kindness and self-acceptance. Under a photo of Wally with hay stuck to his mouth, Prottas wrote, “He’ll be very embarrassed if you call attention to it in your comments. So maybe choose any other part of him to comment on—paws, nose, ears, etc. Just no beard or chin. Thank you!”

In a touching example of internet crowd control, 154 people dutifully wrote in with compliments (i.e. “Wally, you have the fluffiest ears. I love them.”) Wally also has an advice column on Patch.com, offering a mix of goofy bunny-talk and gentle guidance to adults who choose to bring their troubles to an internet rabbit.

“I feel like I am putting on a brave face to make other people happy when all I really want to do is just still be sad,” confided a letter writer struggling to recover from a painful breakup. “Maybe rubbing some Wally-belly would make me feel better… :)”

“Can you imagine asking an ocean wave to stop waving? It would never listen! So we shouldn’t demand that sadness stop being so sad!” counseled Wally, via Molly. “Loss is painful and complex; it can tangle your emotions and shatter your spirit. Of course you are sad! Allow yourself to feel your feelings. You are still riding a wave of sadness; trust that it will safely carry you ashore.”

Death be not proud

Instagram’s animal stars burn bright and fast. For all the joy and squeals they bring, famous pets reach the end of their journey far sooner than the arc of human celebrity has prepared us to accept.

 If there is a dark side to the celebrity animal world, it is the specter of mortality. 

“This is a very difficult post to type and it breaks our hearts,” began Biddy the Hedgehog’s penultimate post last year to more than 600,000 followers. “Our spiky little guy passed away on Sunday, March 1st.”

“To know that Biddy’s photos could bring happiness, laughter and possibly inspire others is breathtaking. We couldn’t have asked for a better hedgehog.” More than 27,000 tributes followed in the comments.

This is a very difficult post to type and it breaks our hearts. Our spiky little guy passed away on Sunday, March 1st. Biddy finally seemed better, then he quickly took a turn for the worst. In the end we believe cancer was the cause of death and the reason for all of his health issues. We are very thankful for all the time we spent with him before he went. We want to thank all of you for following Biddy and his adventures. It's truly amazing to see people from all parts of the world sharing and commenting on his photos. To know that Biddy's photos could bring happiness, laughter and possibly inspire others is breathtaking. We couldn't have asked for a better hedgehog. Biddy was a big part of our family and he will be greatly missed. #biddythehedgehog #runstronglittlebuddy 🐭🐾

A photo posted by Biddy (@biddythehedgehog) on

If there is a dark side to the celebrity animal world, it is the specter of mortality. There are whispered rumors that a certain pet of Beyonce-level fame has in fact passed, and is being artificially kept alive on social media with old photos until the endorsement contracts are up. Others charge that some pets have died more than once and been quietly replaced with identical successors.

Some owners plan for succession, introducing a younger pet to the public stage as an elder animal ages. Harlow and Sage were the Cagney and Lacey of Instagram-famous rescue dogs until Sage died in September 2013. The account still bears but their names, but Harlow anchors it now with adopted canine siblings Indiana and Reese.

Others leave social media fame behind once their animal snuffles off this mortal coil, a happy footnote to the legacy of a beloved pet.

Biddy’s owners have left his Instagram feed public in memoriam, with a note appended to the profile: “This page is not for sale and will left open for everyone to enjoy.” The late hedgehog still has 583,000 followers.

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