|Apr/May 2006 Travel|
The Humvee-sized orange tabby parked on the sidewalk in front of Atlantic City's convention center looked hungry. Also known as the Meow Mix-mobile, it had hauled two days from Missouri just to lounge outside the pet industry's spring trade show. Staring at the tabby vehicle, you could almost imagine a seismic tilt from the casinos at the far end of Michigan Avenue. By some recent estimates, the U.S. pet industry's annual take ($31 billion, according to a pet trade association survey) dwarfs that of the gambling industry ($26.5 billion taken in U.S. casinos). The international pet industry unites nations and societies in what some say is the great shift of our age, as big as congressional redistricting: a change in the human-animal bond. Just 140 years after the invention of pet food by an Ohio electrician, Americans spend more on their pets than they do on toys or candy.
In Atlantic City every spring, the trade show's exhibitors dangle their most inventive lures before buyers (mostly retail shop owners on the front line of this change): an anti-bark collar that sprays a lemongrass scent to startle a dog from its barking fit; a goth-like black leash with red blinking lights (batteries not included); Uncle Milton's Xtreme Ants ("See live ants play in their own extreme sports park!"); and Woof-a-roni dog treats ("chewy pasta bones"). Aisle after aisle stake out an astonishing range of commercial terrain. At one recent show, a rawhide funbone looked like a piece of French toast. One retailer stood transfixed by the marketing moxy displayed in a bottle of chicken-flavored water.
Colette Fairchild, the trade show director, was registering late arrivals and putting out logistical fires. Her black walkie talkie kept bleating in her hand, and she still had more prize contests to manage, more Madcap Mutts performances to host, and a taping by Channel 40. Fairchild began working at a pet store in Chicago when she was fourteen, intending to become a vet. When the science proved overwhelming, she did a stint with pet trade magazines and then started organizing trade shows. She arranged the first Atlantic City show for H.H. Backer in 1989. She is as amazed as anyone else that the event has grown tenfold since that first year. New manufacturers just keep coming, and the new technologies multiply. She pointed to the programmable Talk-to-Me ball. "You program it in your voice," Fairchild explained. "So the toy will say things like, 'Come over here, Pepper,' and your pet will respond to your voice."
The trend is worldwide. Soon-Sik Kim, a young rep at the GUGA International booth, had come from Seoul just for this event. He and his coworkers hoped this would help them crack the international market. Their pet carriers for the high-end consumer resembled designer hand bags and had garnered interest, but they also had high hopes for their pet tents and their flagship: a wooden pyramid pet house. Kim was excited about the pyramid, which he called "amazing."
"They're proven to promote health and energy," Kim said. "If you put plants inside the pyramid, they grow three times faster than plants outside it." Kim admits the high-end pet market in Korea remains small, but it's growing.
On the next aisle Shel Singh, of Advance International in India, showed me one of their big sellers, an adjustable stainless steel rack for a dog dish that can grow as your dog grows. Other dish models gleamed around him, all made in their plant in India. "All stainless," he said. "If you see any stainless steel here, it's probably from us."
Just then the center's p.a. system reverberated with an announcement reminding visitors that the Madcap Mutts were about to start their afternoon show. Five minutes later in the Dog Sports Arena, a small white fence enclosing poker-chip blue turf, a man in a red shirt and blue suspenders hustled five or six dogs to a stage prop marked "Animal Shelter." The buyers scattered amid the folding chairs looked like a tough audience, but the man in the suspenders breezed out toward them and cried, "Howdy!"
Tom Brackney's Mad-Cap Mutts have been featured on television and Broadway, but what made them unique, he said, is that "every single animal has been rescued from a shelter." Brackney is in the behavior business, and he stands in the center ring of the new human-animal relationship. His act shows how even abandoned pets can learn to be productive members of society. Holly, a sandy-colored mutt dumped on the highway in Sussex County, New Jersey, sits patiently on a stool while Brackney explains that their traveling show has raised over $200,000 for animal shelters. Then she demonstrates how she got the label "the mutt that kicks butt": when Brackney turns away from her she runs over and jumps up and propels herself off of his backside. He takes a pratfall forward. Brackney's act is no circus act. The dogs appear to be his partners, not his subjects.
Brackney urged his audience of pet shop owners to learn about the supplies that they could recommend to pet owners for behavioral problems. At one point in the show, eight yipping dogs were onstage, and it felt very vaudevillian as the dogs ran around in apparent anarchy. The little black dog jumped into a barrel and out again. Holly and Stormy stood on their back legs and leaned together, forming an arch for a third dog to run through. Marty, who was abandoned at a New York shelter after shredding everything in his owner's apartment, rolled the barrel across the stage. There was a steeplechase scene, a daredevil leap across a chasm, rope jumping and even rope-standing by Cookie, who was dumped in Brackney's driveway one January.
After Brackney closed with ads for his sponsors, a group clustered near the fence to ask advice for problem behaviors. "You have to find what motivates your animal," Tom explained to a couple from Montclair. "Dogs are more visual than they are verbal."
A strange symmetry kept gnawing at me that evening as I wandered down the boardwalk, past dozens of palm readers and tarot reader booths. I paused in front of Resorts, the first casino built here back in the late 1970s. On the wall of stars, Don Rickles had scrawled in cement, "Kiss my resorts! Luv ya, Don Rickles."
There's no getting away from the oddities of Atlantic City, but they occasionally come from being on the forefront. Back in the 1920s, Al Capone and Meyer Lansky rode up and down this boardwalk in Atlantic City's signature wicker carts and waded in the sea. Both were in town for a meeting of entrepreneurs before the word mafia had any meaning, and before Lansky had transformed the landscape of American gambling.
Walking south, I kept an eye peeled for Lucy, another innovator here. Lucy is an elephant-shaped building built in 1881 by a young renegade architect with a gift for self-promotion. Weighing 90 tons and standing six stories high, Lucy had form as well as function. She served first as a hotel, later as a tavern. When fashions changed she was almost extinguished in the late 1960s but she gained new life as an historic landmark, and now thousands of visitors pass through her innards every year.
In front of the imposing old Boardwalk convention hall building, a group of people were walking in circles, wearing sandwich boards that said "Circus animals suffer every day." Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey were performing inside. Parents steered their children clear of the protestors, toward the queue at the box office. One of the protestors pressed a handbill on me. "The Cruelest Show on Earth," said the red, white and blue flyer. Elephants in the circus are beaten and chained up to twenty hours a day, it said, kept in poorly ventilated trailers and boxcars. At the bottom it quoted Gandhi: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
As it happened, Don Rickles was performing in Atlantic City that night, at the Tropicana. When I discovered that, it seemed like a great idea to interview Rickles about his pets and perhaps find the link that brought together the two ends of Michigan Avenue. Rickles' agent put me through. Rickles turned out to be surprisingly personable in conversation. He recalled coming to Atlantic City as a kid with his parents from Long Island for vacations. "That was a hundred years ago," he said.
Rickles has had pets throughout his life. His mother had a little dog, and his son picked out a mutt named Sarge from the pound. At one point the family had twin standard poodles named Joker and Clown. Did he know there was a pet industry convention going on just down Michigan Avenue from the Tropicana? I told him about its size and some of the incredible new products like the Talk-to-me ball and the kosher dog treats.
"I didn't know Jews got that hungry," was all he said.
The Tropicana looked like venues in Scorsese's Casino, in which Rickles played a security chief. The movie was filmed here, Atlantic City standing in for Las Vegas. I walked down row after row of slot machines, roulette wheels and poker tables, surveying the scene before Rickles' act.
Rickles still abuses fat people who come to his show. You wouldn't think many fat people would buy his tickets anymore, but the spotlight zeroed in on one guy in an aisle seat, and Rickles asked how much he weighed. Three hundred, the man said. "Three hundred pounds, on the left side of your ass!" cried the funny man. It was embarrassing, and that was even before Rickles broke into song.
This side of the city was not living up to the humanity on the other side, I thought as I walked back up the boardwalk. The Trump Taj Mahal was very busy at midnight, massage parlors were open 24-7, and the club Carolina Cuties offered lap dances. Back in my room, I found Iron Chef on the Food Network. The Iron Chef Japanese was doing battle with a challenger, and the surprise ingredient was giant eel. The Iron Chef dumped the eel in dry ice to stun it, then chopped it up, still wriggling with life.
The pet industry trade show had a very different feeling in the morning as I walked past the new-product showcase featuring the anti-bark dog collar and Rave catnip toys and sensuous faux-leopard skin throws from Petbedsdirect.com. The fluorescent lights seemed harsher than the evening before. I continued across the exhibit floor and out the back door to the loading dock. In one of the truck bays below the loading dock was a Winnebago, and beside the Winnebago was a penned-area sprinkled with sawdust where a man was feeding a pack of dogs.
"Perfect timing," said Tom Brackney, looking up. He had a break before his next performance, so we talked about his life with the mutts.
Brackney and his wife Bonny had spent 25 years on the road, and their mutts had been a feature of The Will Rogers Follies, which won six Tonys. They toured Europe for 14 years. Brackney began life as a skater in the Ice Follies, and turned animal trainer when he met his wife Bonnie, whose family has been doing versions of Mad-Cap Mutts for 63 years. He said he figured it was easier for him to learn dog training than it would be to teach Bonny professional ice-skating.
Mad-Cap Mutts started out as Sonny Moore's Roustabouts, run by Bonny's uncle Sonny in the late 1930s. At age sixteen, Sonny heard that a comedy dog and mule act was being sold, so he rounded up investors, bought the act and drove it across the country. Five days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was in San Francisco, where he decided to hand over his act to his brother and join the army. Sonny was assigned to the canine corps that was just getting started.
"He was paired up with a German shepherd named Cap," Brackney told me. "They went through basic training together and all the war dog training. The dogs were trained to search out snipers."
Together the pair sniffed out snipers on the island of Luzon for over two years. "They were shot at almost daily. When you live with fear like that, the bond with your animal is incredible. It was an amazing dog. It's a Disney movie, actually."
Eventually Sonny and Cap got back to Seattle in 1946. Bonny's father Dwight handed the show back to Sonny and started his own act with dogs from dog pounds.
"That's how the connection with shelters started, in 1946," Brackney said. "It was a much bigger problem then than it is today. They were really dog pounds. And when they got full they automatically euthanized them with no thought to it, no education process. 'Kill 'em.'"
Tom stepped back into the pen and was mixing it up with Holly. "The show was structured along the lines of the old-fashioned lion act..."
"Kind of like Ringling Brothers—"
"Yeah, kind of. But Dwight put it in the context of, Let's have fun with dogs. Started the trashcan routine, with them knocking him down, stealing his hat. Making it fun, like the dogs were going to win, you know?"
Some would say Dwight Moore pioneered the shift away from the dominant human-animal dynamic. In any case, the brothers divided the country into regions and traveled with their respective shows. Sonny Moore's Roustabouts played the RKO moviehouse. They became friends with Walt Disney through a charity event at the Los Angeles Children's Hospital, and did Disney movies in the 1960s.
Did the dogs show any awareness of comedy? Maybe not humor per se, Brackney replied, but they know the adrenaline of performance. They know it's a different energy.
"You see how they're all just kind of lying around right now? They know when they're on. They get so excited to go work. Annie! What are you doing? Annie-ba-nanny."
He rehearses them a lot to get their acts down, but once they master their parts, the dogs no longer need rehearsals. Yet when a new recruit shows some ability and gets one-on-one coaching in the basement with Tom, the veterans lying in the backyard will know what's up and want to come downstairs. But Brackney is no sentimentalist, and he views the business with a weather eye. The Mutts' annual gig with Disney for the Christmas show went south after Mickey went corporate in the late 1980s. Since the success of Follies, it's become harder to line up bookings aside from the occasional gig with Animal Planet or a National Geographic article. Brackney felt impostors nipping at their trademark. "There's somebody running around, and we haven't caught them yet, calling themselves Madcap Dogs," Tom said with disgust. "That's an infringement on my rights. Until I find them, though, I can't do much about it."
He looked like he was ready to do something about it.
Then the dogs turned adoringly to him. I asked him about the key to such a bond.
"In the beginning," he said, "I was firm, I was fair, and I learned to have a good time with them."