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Drawing a better future for animals

Patrick McDonnell, creator of Mutts comic strip and HSUS board member, shares how together we can confront cruelty

All Animals magazine, July/August 2017

by Patrick McDonnell

A few of the animals McDonnell features in his comics. Illustration by Patrick McDonnell.

As the cartoonist for the comic strip Mutts, I spend most of my time thinking about animals and the lives they lead. My dog, cat and all the active wildlife outside my studio window help shape my day’s work. But in trying to see the world through their eyes, I have become acutely aware how tough most animals have it. And that there is no better organization than The Humane Society of United States to help better their lives.

My love for animals and for the art of the comic strip led me to create Mutts in 1994. It was directly inspired by my own dog, Earl, a Jack Russell terrier who lived to be almost 19 years old. My ambition was to try and capture his joyful spirit on paper in pen and ink. When Mutts was in early development, it centered solely on Earl and his travels around the neighborhood. In one of those sketches, I had Earl meet the tuxedo cat next door. I had hoped this storyline would be good for a few weeks’ worth of jokes. But Mooch, like every cat I’ve known, walked into my life and took over.

Mutts launched as a dog and cat strip focused on Earl and Mooch’s unique friendship. It also celebrated the special bond we all share with our own companion animals. To this day, I try my best to keep my animal characters animal-like, hoping readers will relate and respond to them the way they do to their own best friends.

  • Patrick McDonnell. Photo by Michael Keel.

After working on the strip for almost two years, I started ruminating about all the dogs and cats in our shelters who didn’t have loving homes. It led me to tell their stories in my sketchbook, but I wasn’t sure how to make them an official part of Mutts. Shortly thereafter, The HSUS contacted me to see if Mutts could promote National Animal Shelter and Rescue Appreciation Week during the first week in November. Thus was born Mutts Shelter Stories, which has appeared in newspapers (and online) for two weeks each year for the past 20 years. Nothing is more personally rewarding than hearing that one of these strips inspired a reader to adopt or to volunteer at a local shelter. Shelter Stories: Love. Guaranteed., a collection of these strips, was first published in 2007 with an introduction by HSUS CEO and president Wayne Pacelle (the updated paperback edition is newly available).

This work also led to Mutts recently being featured on the PBS series Shelter Me, a program centered on uplifting stories about shelter pets. For the segment, I spent two days with my sketchbook at the Animal Care Centers of New York City, NYC’s municipal shelter. There I observed, and recorded for Mutts, true stories of shelter animals and the people who help them find forever homes. These strips later appeared in newspapers around the world. In one of the strips, a dog was lost in the city, found and reunited with his family. In another, shelter staff trained a cat to attract adopters by giving “high fives.” The energy at ACC was phenomenal, and the pace was so fast that I could barely keep up with all the stories. They are open 24/7 and take in more than 34,000 animals each year with a live-release rate of more than 90 percent. When I walked through the door I was prepared to witness all the unconditional love from these wonderful animals, but I was blown away by the unconditional love from all the staff, volunteers and adopters.

Mutts has opened up many wonderful opportunities for me, but the most life-changing was in 2000 when I was approached to serve on the board of directors for The HSUS. Serving on the board of the most effective animal protection organization in the world is an honor and a humbling experience. It has made me that much more cognizant of the plight of so many animals and how everything on this fragile planet is truly interconnected. From factory farming to puppy mills, animals are cruelly exploited in so many ways, and The HSUS is there to be their voice. Seeing The HSUS from the inside makes me want to shout from the rooftops how vital and important this organization is.

It’s easy for someone to look away when confronted with all the problems that animals face, but once you see, you cannot unsee. In our hearts, we all know that it’s wrong to harm an animal and that we should take action to protect them. It reminds me of a wise woman who once told me, “When it comes to speaking up and protecting animals, remember you always are right.”

My deepened personal commitment to be a voice to the voiceless inspired me to tackle more and more animal issues in Mutts. I try to be honest rather than preachy, and hopefully entertaining, in my efforts to get the word out. In one particular Sunday strip I created at the time I joined the board, I used the idea of “sweet dreams” to bring some issues to light. It opens with a title panel tribute to Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” which depicts his view from his asylum’s window. In the first panel, Mooch is sleeping on his cat bed with his guardian, Millie, patting him on the head and whispering, “Sweet dreams.” Subsequent panels each show different animals dreaming of running free—a pig in a gestation crate, a chained circus elephant, a chicken in a battery cage, a chimpanzee in a research lab, ending with a chained dog dreaming of being inside, on his dog bed, and being patted on the head with his guardian saying, “Sweet dreams.”

Back in 2000, fighting against these atrocities felt insurmountable, and achieving major success was a seemingly impossible dream. But in 2004, when the board voted in Wayne Pacelle as the new CEO of The HSUS, we got powerful leadership. Wayne and his dedicated staff are pivotal in making these dreams come true. Their determination, passion and sheer will enable us to win time and time again, even when met with relentless opposition.

We are waking up and “Sweet Dreams” is becoming a reality for many animals: the phasing out of gestation crates, Ringling Bros. retiring elephants and closing down completely, cage-free hens becoming mainstream, chimpanzee research a thing of the (recent) past, anti-tethering laws proliferating and dogfighting laws becoming a felony in every state.

Thanks to The HSUS, the world is changing at a phenomenal pace. People are rapidly becoming more conscious of, and empathetic toward, the fellow beings with whom we share our planet, and we are voting against animal exploitation.

Of course, there’s always more we need to do. And we will show up, speak up and prevail for animals like Earl and Mooch, and the millions without names.

Patrick McDonnell is the creator of the comic strip Mutts. His latest book, Darling I Love You, is a collaboration with poet Daniel Ladinsky centered on the love we have for our companion animals.

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