March 25, 2011 9:59 pm

Pet palaces

 
Maryann Pascal with her dog Lola

Maryann Pascal and her dog Lola at the dog’s luxurious home in Las Vegas

In celebrity-infested Beverley Hills, California, Paris Hilton, the heiress famous for being famous, had a small-scale replica of her very own mansion built in the garden specifically for her dogs at a cost of $325,000.

In far more modest La Plata, Maryland, the branch of the nationwide Petco chain is selling a pretty big bird cage, a kitty condo and “salle de bains pour chat”, but none of them for more than $200. There have been no known heiresses or celebrities in La Plata since John Wilkes Booth passed through at a fast gallop after assassinating Abraham Lincoln in 1865 (though Willie Nelson will be performing at its minor league baseball stadium this summer).

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Jurek Martin

Both are manifestations of this peculiar anthropomorphic determination not merely to imbue pets with human characteristics but to make animals live like us, too.

The overall pet products market is worth $45bn a year, about one-third in pet food, and has proved remarkably resistant to the recession.

The phenomenon goes by the generic term of “pet palaces,” though accoutrements would probably be a more accurate title. It cannot be known, because of a lack of pet opinion polls, if this lavish affection is appreciated or not, but that would make no difference in any case. As The Voice told Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come” as if pets had any choice in the matter.

There are innumerable delights. For example, $20,000 will buy the Victorian Doggie Mansion, replete with garden, white picket fence, porch and doggie door. But, reflecting changing global economics, the Mexican Hacienda version runs to $10,000 more (an automatic margarita mixer, perhaps?). Architectural modernists might be drawn more to the Hundehaus Cubix Modern Dog House, in the Bauhaus style, not least because it is cheaper, at a mere $5,800-$6,300.

Those are presumably for outside use, not the preferred habitat of pets in colder climes. The USS Precious is, basically, an indoors nautical doggie basket, complete with port hole, the handiwork of one Betsy Boggs, whose Precious Palaces operation owes its name to the eponymous but late pet who, we learn, was a mixed breed Papillon and King Charles spaniel. She takes up to 12 weeks to make each Precious Palace and charges $3,116.

If we humans take holidays, then so must pets, if not being taken with us (it is difficult to take a small dog, let alone goldfish, on safari, where they might get eaten). Rather than dump them in any old kennel, an option might be the sumptuous Applewood Pet Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, which boasts real fleece-lined beds, a bone-shaped wading pool and colour TV.

And if we, these days, would be lost if not wired to everybody we do or do not know, then so must our four-footed friends. Mattel, the big toy company, offers social networking for pets in the form of “puppy tweets.” It seems a plastic thingie, attached to the pet’s collar, emits regular pre-programmed updates on Twitter based on the animal’s sounds and movements (it does not say if this runs to “pooped again”).

Alternatively, the Cool Pet House made by Funky Pets features a wireless webcam to enable the owner to monitor all its activities inside its house from wherever the owner happens to be. It also comes with temperature controls, administered from the remote, indoor lighting and quiet fans “to enlighten the living experience.”

Just as humans may inherit wealth, so can pets. The most celebrated instance involved Leona Helmsley, the New York property and hotels tycoon, who died in 2007, leaving $12m to her Maltese, named Trouble, subsequently reduced to $2m by a judge who was obviously no pet lover. But that is far from the record, apparently belonging to Carlotta Liebenstein, a German countess who bequeathed upwards of $80m to her Alsatian, Gunther 3rd, and all the other Gunthers who followed him. Others notably generous to their pet cats include the singer Dusty Springfield to Nicholas (a tree house with piped music of her hit records and a budget for gourmet food) and the actress Beryl Reid, who simply bequeathed her whole house to her five felines. The US being a litigious society, some 40 states have recently passed laws to enforce pet trusts, previously considered voluntary or invalid on the grounds that a pet is a chattel not a human, which is not the opinion of many pet owners. A typical pet trust is in the $5,000-$10,000 range.

All this spending on pet products and services exercises Priscilla Clapp, a retired US diplomat of distinction, because she thinks this sort of money would be better deployed in funding the animal shelters (no palaces they) which look after the 5m-7m pets abandoned in any given year. Known to her friends as Kitty (and not because she has her own houseful of cats) she is a past president and current board member of the Washington Humane Society. “If I could find a way of tapping into this extravagance into giving to local shelters, it would be good,” she says.

But, as President Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” And if you get the dog (or cat, or iguana or parakeet but probably not a great white shark), you had better do unto them as you would do unto yourself. Paris Hilton, at least, gets it.

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Carla Carlisle on kennel culture: ‘No dogmas allowed’

The creation of the Dog Chapel wasn’t an act of architectural conceit. Our dogs Fanny and Bofus used to disappear for days on end. For hours I roamed the countryside, panicked that they were either dead in a ditch or that a family had been killed after the driver swerved to avoid my happy-go-lucky hounds.

 
Carla Carlisle and her Labrador Otis

Carla Carlisle and her Labrador Otis

I grew up on a farm on the banks of the Yazoo River in the Mississippi Delta where the dogs had freedom. But English country life is different. Dogs are either house dogs or working dogs and serious countrymen have kennels for their dogs. After months of hunting the dogs all over west Suffolk, I embraced kennel culture. Unfortunately the kennels advertised in CLA magazine and Farmer’s Weekly were modelled on prison architecture. If I erected one like that, I figured it would have to be far from the house. And if it was far from the house, I figured we’d forget we had dogs.

Once I accepted that it had to be outside the kitchen, I wanted a building that would be nice to gaze at. I’d always regretted marrying an Englishman with an estate that, despite going back to Domesdays, didn’t have its own chapel. So naturally, I had steeples and gothic windows in mind. I commissioned Stephen Flory, a carpenter who specialises in chicken houses, to build it. I wanted it big enough to accommodate an armchair as the dogs like sleeping elevated.

I can’t remember the cost but it was less than the kennels preferred by gamekeepers. I can’t say the dogs love it but at least I have peace of mind. If I felt smug at having the only Dog Chapel in the land, it was short-lived. Before long, a friend sent me The Dog Chapel, a book about a chapel in Vermont built by the artist and writer Stephen Huneck in honour of the spiritual bond between people and their dogs. The chapel’s welcome sign reads:

‘Welcome

All Creeds

All Breeds

No Dogmas Allowed.’

Stephen Flory, My-chicken-house.com, Oak Cottage, Thwait Road, Thorndon, Eye, Suffolk IP23 7JJ, tel: 01379-678085

‘The Dog Chapel’ by Stephen Huneck. Published by Harry N Abrams

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