Animal attraction Former Meow Mix boss starts Secaucus-based pet website

Anyone seeking a new vet after a move or wondering if the Egyptian Mau cat plays well with small children could normally sift through dozens of resources before coming to an answer – or they could log onto, based in Secaucus.

The site lets users rate veterinarians, shelters and breeders; has a place where people can post videos and pictures of their pets, and constantly updates its pet news. It already has 50,000 animal owners as site members.

The site – which has already dubbed itself the “Zagat of the pet community,” according to Zootoo spokeswoman Renée Lane – clearly hopes to gain a foothold, or is that a pawhold, in America’s lucrative pet services industry.

“We have our own television studio where our ZootooTV segments are filmed,” Lane said. “Our news coverage is meant to make our users aware of what’s going on in the animal world. And users can click on to the stories that are posted and they can leave their comments, which is another way for our members to have a voice and share their opinions with other animal lovers.”

Zootoo was launched last spring by former Meow Mix CEO Richard Thompson in part as a response to the pet food recall that was the first domino to fall in a long line of Chinese-made products that were ultimately pulled from store shelves.

Thompson believed that one way to cut through the confusion was to create an online channel for pet owners to communicate directly with one another, offering testimony on brands they trust and have used on their own animals.

“We are the first user-generated, opinion-sharing website for the pet community,” Lane said.

The company’s office is located on Plaza Drive in Secaucus.

Exalted pets

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet ownership in the U.S. is at an all-time high, with 7.6 million households, or 59.5 percent of homes, owning at least one family pet. Today, the family pet enjoys an exalted status, as compared with pets of the past. Products and services such as doggie day spas, gourmet cat snacks, designer animalwear, and health insurance for man’s best friend would have been little more than punch lines when Mr. Ed was in his heyday; now they are given straightfaced coverage in the mainstream media and are part of a burgeoning pet services industry.

Americans spend around $41 billion annually on their pets, according to Business Week.

“We’ve created a platform to give the pet community a voice,” Lane explained. “Zootoo is a place where our members can go to find out what other pet owners said about products and services they’ve used. By sharing their opinions and experiences on Zootoo, people can help the next pet owner who comes to the site make a more informed decision about what to use.”

Unedited reviews

Zootoo’s philosophy is that the unfiltered nature of the information exchanged on the site gives pet owners the most honest and useful evaluation of the thousands of goods and services on the market today.

And unlike other similar websites that tend to be more dog- and cat-centered, Zootoo has a much broader definition of the term “pet.” Horse, snake, iguana, frog, and rabbit fans won’t feel left out. They, too, can get feedback on products and services for their four-, two-, or, in the case of snakes, zero-legged friends.


Six out of six Zootoo members reported that their hamsters and gerbils can’t get enough of Vitakraft’s Small Animal Nibble Bars.

And everyone knows there are dog sweaters available on the market, but who knew there was a Marshall Ferret Jacket – which also received a favorable rating? Well, apparently the folks logging on to Zootoo.


A major feature of Zootoo, in addition to the product reviews from its members, is the site’s original news content, generated in-house by staff journalists who post both videotaped news briefs and written stories on ZootooTV’s Pet Pulse.

One recent ZootooTV segment reported on a hydrotherapy-based indoor “dog run” in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood that was forced to close due to a rent increase. Before it went out of business, the Dog Run of NYC served up to 85 dogs daily, many of whom had special needs and required ongoing physical therapy.

Another ZootooTV segment featured Paro, a robotic seal that is being used with elderly nursing home patients in Japan who aren’t able to care for real animals. Paro has many lifelike features, apparently giving the patients the same benefits they’d get if they interacted with a live dog or cat, namely social interaction, lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety.

Local shelter may win a $1M makeover

Currently Zootoo is sponsoring a “makeover contest” which allows its members to raise money for their favorite animal shelter. Registered members can use their online activity on Zootoo to accumulate points, which are in turn allocated to the animal shelter of their choice. The shelters that win the most points may get cash and free renovations.

Joining Zootoo, which is free of charge, earns 100 points. Written reviews posted to the site earn 20 points, while a video review – that is, a posted video of a pet using a product or service, accompanied by a voiceover review – gets 40 points.

This spring, the top 20 point-earners will be evaluated by a Zootoo advisory board, which will select the shelter it thinks is the neediest. That shelter will win a renovation “makeover” valued at up to $1 million. The second neediest shelter will receive a $10,000 cash prize to use at it wishes. The remaining 18 earners will each win $5,000 cash.

“What we found in our research is that about 70 percent of people in a community don’t know where their local shelter is,” Lane explained. “So we designed this promotional contest to help increase awareness and funding for shelters nationwide.”

Members’ Zootoo accounts must be linked to the shelter of their choice in order for the shelter to earn points. And pages on the website allow participants to track how well their favorite shelter is fairing in the contest.

At press time, the SPCA of Tonawanda, N.Y., was in the lead among shelters, with 307,419 total points. The Secaucus Animal Shelter ranked 121st on the list, with 12,997 points accumulated thus far.

The makeover contest, which started last October, will end on March 31.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group