'Mutts' Cartoonist Inspired by His Pets

Spreading the word about shelter pet adoption is this cartoonist's pet project.

Posted in , Sep 22, 2009

Jack Russell

If you read the Sunday funny papers, you probably already know the lovable cat-and-dog team Mooch and Earl from Patrick McDonnell's comic strip Mutts.

In turns funny, poignant, beautiful and just plain wise, Mutts offers glimpses into how Mooch and Earl—and their many friends of all species—see the world. Along the way, it shows us a lot about human nature, too.

McDonnell credits his own pets with inspiration and material for the strip.
"I spend a lot of my time just looking at them and trying to think of what their day is like," says McDonnell. "A lot of napping. And they have an innocence about them, because they really see the world new every day. I try to capture some of that."

For McDonnell, being a cartoonist was a lifelong dream. An early favorite comic strip was Charles Schulz's Peanuts.

In fact, it was one of Schulz's characters, Snoopy, who inspired McDonnell to create a dog to begin with. "Snoopy was the reason I was nuts about dogs," he says. "As a kid, my family had cats. So I was always obsessed with getting a little dog like Snoopy."

Drawing magazine illustrations, McDonnell would always find a way to incorporate the same little white dog somewhere in the background—a "generic cartoon dog," he says.

When he decided to start a comic strip, he wanted to focus on that little dog. Then someone told him that "what I thought was a generic dog—I was drawing a Jack Russell Terrier. I had no idea what a Jack Russell was, so I had to look it up.  And when I saw it, I said, 'That's my cartoon come to life!' "

Soon after McDonnell did something he'd wanted to his whole life: get a dog. His name? You guessed it: Earl.

"Earl was everything I was hoping he would be. He was the perfect happy dog. My little cartoon dog became a real dog and then the real dog inspired me to do the comic strip. It came full circle."

McDonnell bought Earl from a breeder; back then, more than 20 years ago, he says he wasn't yet "enlightened" about adopting a dog from a shelter or agency, a cause that's dear to him now and a subject that comes up regularly in Mutts. (October is Adopt a Shelter Dog month.)

"I had no idea that I could find a Jack Russell in a shelter," he explains.

"In my strip, Earl and Mooch have loving guardians and a great life, and I think about all the dogs and cats who are waiting in shelters for that," explains McDonnell. "Hopefully it will inspire a reader who's thinking about getting a dog or a cat to adopt from a shelter."

MeeMow, the real whiskers behind the comic star Mooch, is a formerly feral cat who adopted McDonnell and his wife.

Though McDonnell regularly addresses the joys of adopting shelter animals, it never comes off as preachy. It may tug at your heart strings, but you won't feel like you've heard a lecture.

"That's one of the nice things about comic strips," says McDonnell. "You see them in the newspaper, they sort of become family and friends."

A year and a half ago, Earl passed away at the very respectable age of 19. "He had an amazing life," says McDonnell. "It took me a long time to get another dog, because Earl was just perfect in my eyes."
But now there's a new addition to the McDonnell household: another Jack Russell Terrier, named Amelie, found through Petfinder.com.

And a new source of inspiration is wagging her way into his heart.----- 

Check out these Mutts strips: Footprints, The List, Chasing a Butterfly, Shelter Stories and Life Advice.

Patrick McDonnell's latest book, Guardians of Being (co-written with Eckhart Tolle), is "all about how our cats and dogs bring us to the present moment, and the spirituality of animals." Read an excerpt!

Nina Hämmerling Smith is a writer in Weston, Connecticut.

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