Back in the early 1990s illustrator Susan Meddaugh got a call from her friend Martha, who had found a skinny mutt. Susan took in the dog, named her after her friend and made Martha part of a loving family. In return Martha made Susan prosperous beyond her wildest dreams. Or at least that's the way Meddaugh sees it.
"I really enjoy being able to say: you adopt a dog from a shelter or a stray, look what can happen. This amazing dog has taken me on a ride," Susan told me when I interviewed her for PeoplePets.com. Since 1992, people have bought some 800,000 copies of her fantastic Martha Speaks kids' book series about the adventures of a dog who can speak after eating alphabet soup. Now Martha is speaking to a new generation on a hit show PBS show of the same name.
Susan's gratitude to Martha is akin to the philosophy of Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. In Susan's case, she loved dogs in general and Martha in particular. She also loved illustrating, of course.Finding a practical way to turn your love of animals into a job is the trickier part. While Susan's story is quirky and non-repeatable, so are all great success stories, whether involving animal business or not.
A lot of pet businesses started with somebody's inspiration to serve their own pet. Derek DiFante, who runs Pet Fashion Week in New York, says the most common way pet businesses start is that a pet lover goes looking for a product to make their animal's life better, can't find it and decides to make it. The trendy Halo brand pet food was started by the owner of a kitten named Spot who got sick eating conventional food. A New Yorker started Pawz, a company that makes ballon-like dog booties, because his own dog's paws got burned with salt on sidewalks. The couple who makes the HelpEmUp Harness started when they couldn't find a good device to lift their ailing dog.
And plenty more people just want to be around dogs, so they start dog-walking, dog-sitting or dog-chauffeuring. Stories abound of refugees of Wall Street or other fields turning to dog-walking. I like to say that I've gotten work through my dog Jolly, whose favorite dog run girlfriend is an editor.
Susan took a while to figure out Martha's role. "I used to just drop her into other childrens books," she says.
Then one day her son Niko asked if Martha would be able to speak if she ate the alphabet soup they were having for lunch. "It was one of those a-ha moments," Susan says. "I've got a brilliant child a wonderful dog and this is what I would do."
Flipping through the channels I spotted Martha and instantly recognized her from the books my whole family loves. I was just going to watch a few minutes, but Martha's stories drew me in. There are some minor changes: Martha has a bi-lingual Hispanic mother because the show hopes to reach out to kids whose parents don't speak English at home. Research shows they lag in vocabulary if they don't catch up early. Susan hopes she can just expose them to these words--20 tucked discreetly into each episode.
Martha's first life was as a dog; her second was as an entertaining book character and now her third is as a TV educator. In other words, Martha the dog--now deceased--keeps on giving to Susan, her favorite person. Martha the curious character is a perfect teacher. Once Martha speaks, Meddaugh says, what Martha is saying is: "I have words now and I love every tasty syllable." Susan learned French because of an inspiring teacher. "You get hooked on things mostly because of the teachers," she says. Now her Martha may be the one to teach kids English.
And for all that Susan is grateful to Martha and her successors--currently three dogs in the household. A clerk once asked her why she was bothering buying Martha a brand new set of tennis balls (any old tennis ball will do for a dog.) "Why not?" she responded. "She bought me a car."
No matter how many bright, new tennis balls she gives, Susan still feels indebted to her animals. "I'm sorry my dogs can't appreciate what they've done for me."
Read more stories from Carol's column, Animals & Money
Animals & Money: Martha Speaks...volumes about what pets can do for you