One on One with Patrick McDonnell

Life imitates art for this animal-championing artist
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One on One with Patrick McDonnell

It all started when a tiny canine with a circle around one eye started appearing in Patrick McDonnell's illustrations for publications such as Sports Illustrated, Time, and Forbes. Next came the look-alike Jack Russell terrier named Earl that McDonnell adopted; in 1994 Earl inspired McDonnell's comic strip MUTTS. Appearing in more than 700 newspapers, the strip and its characters are also featured in more than 20 book collections, as well as in Guardians of Being, a collaboration with author Eckhart Tolle. McDonnell, 54, shares his New Jersey home with wife Karen O'Connell, a fellow veg, and with a Jack Russell terrier, Amelie, and a cat, MeeMow.

Q What were you aiming for when you created MUTTS?

A I was trying to see the world through the eyes of my animal characters. People have such a great bond with their companion animals, and I wanted to get that into my strip.

Q How has animal advocacy figured into the strip?

A I was doing MUTTS for about five years when I started working with the Humane Society of the United States. They asked me to be on the national board of directors, and I learned more about how tough it is for animals. It became a big part of my life and the strip. I've tackled a lot of issues—feral cats, puppy mills, factory farming, fur—but hopefully in an entertaining way because I don't want to be too preachy about it. People read comic strips every day, and it's like a family conversation. I like to slip in animal issues every once in a while in a friendly way, because I can touch people who aren't thinking about an issue and get them to think about it.

Q Did Earl's passing in November 2008 affect MUTTS?

A When he first passed away, some of my sadness was in the strip, but at the same time, I felt like his spirit was still here and his spirit lives in the strip. There isn't a day that I don't think about him. I was really fortunate because he had a long, healthy life. It was only the last month or two that he got sick. Doing the strip was cathartic, and it helped keep his spirit alive.

Q How did your collaboration with Eckhart Tolle come about?

A I discovered Eckhart's book The Power of Now when it came out about a decade ago, and over the years I've followed his work and thought there was a connection between it and MUTTS. I really like how simply he can state big, important ideas. I connected with him because in cartooning, there's a Zen quality: you have to get a lot of information into a small space. I also connected with how he talks about nature and our companion animals helping us to become still and in the moment. I thought that putting my cartoons with his words would be a powerful combination. So I found quotes about nature and animals from his books and audiotapes, put them together with my cartoons, and proposed the collaboration.

Q Why did you become vegetarian?

A Why not be vegetarian? That's the question. I've been vegetarian for more than 20 years and it was the best decision I ever made. A couple of weeks into it, I felt better. My head felt clearer.

Q What was it like receiving praise from Charles Schulz?

A The nicest thing about becoming a cartoonist was that I became friends with my hero. He drew Earl in one of his Peanuts strips. It hangs on my wall and it's my prized possession. It's magic. Every time I look at it, I can't believe it.