Does Santa ask pets if they've been nice?

December 08, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

THIS TIME, when I heard the Petsmart commercial on the car radio urging people to run out and buy holiday gifts for their pets, I did not go ballistic.

In the past, such a spot would have caused my blood pressure to spike and I would have ranted and raved and swerved all over the road like Glen Campbell after a few cocktails.

But not anymore. These days I am calm and centered, and ludicrous behavior no longer gets me all worked up.

If someone is crazy enough to buy Christmas presents for a dog or cat or some stupid ferret, well, that's something for them and their therapist to discuss.

I was OK - well, holding it together, anyway - until I came into work and mentioned the commercial to my editor.

"That's nothing," the editor said. "At Petsmart, you can also take your pet to see Santa ... and have a picture taken with him."

Stop it, I said. A man in your position telling such monstrous lies ... why, even the most lunatic pet owner wouldn't engage in such nonsense.

"Check it out," he said. "You'll see."

So I drove out to the Petsmart in Towson and, sure enough, there were big posters in the windows announcing Santa would soon be there.

And Santa wouldn't just be doing a fly-by, either. No, Santa was scheduled to be at the store for the next three weekends, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

No one at the store would get into whether this was nuts or not - these days, if you work for a big corporation and talk to the press without authorization, they take you outside and beat you with sticks.

So I ended up calling Pet- smart's corporate headquarters in Arizona and talking with a pleasant-sounding woman named Andrea Davis, who identified herself as a "communications representative."

Davis said Petsmart stores have been offering pets visits with Santa since the chain began in 1987. For $9.95, the pet - and I guess the owner, too - gets a snazzy two-photo package commemorating the big moment, with part of the proceeds earmarked for homeless pets.

OK, fine, I said. But nobody actually shows up at these things, right? What's a typical crowd to see Santa: a couple of disturbed people and their mangy mutts?

"Actually, the response has been great," she said. "In 2002, we had over 230,000 pets [that] had their photo taken with Santa. ... We have people bring in everything from puppies to pythons."

At the mention of this 230,000 figure, I was so stunned that I nearly dropped the phone.

Andrea, I said, doesn't this seem a little, um, extreme to you?

People bringing their pets to see Santa Claus - isn't that just a tad beyond the pale?

"No," she said. "At Petsmart, we call our customers `pet parents.' These are people who think of their pets as children.

" ... Today what we're seeing is that a number of people are putting off the decision to start families, or they're baby boomers dealing with an empty nest. They think of, and treat, their pets as children.

" ... So, of course, they're not going to leave their pets out of the holiday festivities. They're going to try to integrate their pets into holiday festivities and traditions."

Then Davis rattled off a truly disturbing statistic - disturbing to me, anyway - from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association: 93 percent of people who buy pet products purchase gifts for their pets.

At this point, I could sense the argument slipping away from me.

This woman was armed with facts and statistics, which always make me uncomfortable. Plus she was enthusiastically espousing the whole hard-line Up-With-Pets! agenda, which, of course, was her job.

On the other hand, I was coming to the discussion armed only with the vague sense that this whole pets-and-Santa business was insane.

One thing I've learned about PR people over the years, though: They can spin you and spin you if they get you on their turf.

The trick is to get them out of the corporate-mouthpiece mode and back to the Real World.

So I decided to take the personal approach.

Andrea, I said, you sound like a reasonable person. So just between you and me and 300,000 Sun readers: Would you take your pet to visit Santa?

"I have taken my pet to see Santa," she said quickly.

Oh.

Davis went on to say that her pet is a Chihuahua named Miss Moxie, who has apparently cozied up to Santa a number of times.

Last year, Davis went on, Santa actually came to Pet- smart's corporate headquarters, and employees were encouraged to bring their pets for a meet-and-greet with the Big Man.

You brought your pet to work? I said.

Actually, Davis said, the 800 people who work at Petsmart headquarters are allowed to bring their pets to work every Friday throughout the year.

"We have people who have lizards, birds, rats ... " she said.

It must be like having an office on Noah's ark.

I guess I could handle a lizard scurrying around while I changed the toner on the copying machine.

But ... rats?

You gotta wonder how Santa feels about that, too.

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