By Lauren Lewis
Zootoo.com, the online brainchild of former Meow Mix CEO Richard Thompson, has taken off since its October 2007 debut. The site is a place for pet lovers to social network, learn about pet-friendly products and services, share experiences, and more. Thompson recently garnered press for spearheading a nationwide contest for a million-dollar shelter makeover through the site, of which St. Louis–based Stray Rescue was named the lucky winner, and has just announced its second annual makeover contest. We talked with Thompson about Zootoo, the shelter makeover, and taking a different look at how we see our shelters in the U.S.
How did Zootoo.com come about?
After we sold Meow Mix we had a lot of knowledge about the pet industry. When the [pet food] recall came around, there wasn’t any single place for people to go to and get information or give information. I wondered why there wasn’t a place on the Internet for pets because it’s such a large category. We came up with Zootoo. “Zoo” means all animals, and “too” means you too can be helpful to the animals.
What was it like coming into this venture with your background at Meow Mix?
I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. For me—whether it’s Meow Mix or Zootoo—it’s all about how to approach it uniquely. How to make it fun, how to make it interesting, and how to make it work. This is sort of like social entrepreneurship.
Tell us about the million-dollar shelter makeover.
With Meow Mix, we gave away a lot of cat food over the years, and with some of those donations I’d go see how the shelters were doing and meet the shelter managers. First of all, I found that the shelter managers are very interesting people, and they’re all heroes of their community. But they don’t get any spotlight ever shined on them. And they need more money. And they need more donations, and they need more help in all levels. I can’t help them all, but I can find a way to shine the spotlight on the problem—in this society, it’s that all these shelters are kind of out of mind, out of sight. And by bringing them back into the spotlight and into the communities, we think we can be helpful. Everybody in the community wants to be helpful; they just need to know when and where.
Overall, how much money was given away?
We said we were going to give up to a million dollars away. Obviously the prize winner is Stray Rescue in St. Louis. But all the finalists received checks for $5,000. The first runner-up got a check for $20,000, and the second runner-up got a check for $10,000.
Are you pretty hands on with Stray Rescue’s makeover?
Yes. We are meeting with the mayor and all the powers that be in St. Louis. The city has really rallied and is coming together and supporting [founder] Randy [Grim] and Stray Rescue, and it’s really great to see it. One of the reasons we picked Stray Rescue … is that Stray Rescue has a concept where they want to bring four or five entities under one roof, and I really like that concept.
What are some things we can be doing as a society or as individuals to help?
I think if you start with the shelter, all of the activity rotates around the shelter. Whether it’s a spay/neuter program, training program, educational program—but that’s where you’ve got a physical asset. And the physical asset needs to be taken care of and cherished by the community. Let’s start with the simple things: signs. Let’s have every shelter in America work with their local township or mayor to get up a really great sign so that all the citizens in the community know where the shelter is, so they can see it. Start small, but with something you can physically do in your community at the next city council meeting. Start with great signage so people can find the place. And then once they find the place, then they can donate or volunteer.
Finally, do you have pets at home?
Yeah, I have two cats, Nala and Simba, named after Lion King characters. One’s an Abyssinian, and one is an Aussie cat. They’re both about 7 years old. The Abyssinian you can never find him; he hides and jumps around. And the Aussie cat you can’t get him out of your lap.