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Sites unleash pet power

Times Staff Writer

Ben Huh launched his website in February with the modest goal of helping Seattle-area residents find dog parks and pet stores. In the first month, Itchmo -- named in honor of his dog’s constant demands to be scratched -- registered just 350 hits.

“I don’t even think our friends came,” said Huh, 29, a software company product manager.

Then came the March 16 recall of 60 million containers of pet food after reports of illnesses and deaths. Huh posted a few bits of information on the suspect foods and links to recall lists. Itchmo then hit blogger pay dirt: links to Web documents, such as the manufacturer’s “Code of Conduct,” that were not visible from the company’s home page. In two weeks, Huh logged 1.5 million hits from fearful and outraged pet owners.

“This is not like somebody stirred up a hornet’s nest; it’s like someone stirred up a flock of sheep,” said Huh, whose wife has quit her job to devote herself to the site full time. “We’re not used to being mobilized like this. But we’ve got teeth.”

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The pet food scandal has transformed once-obscure websites about litter boxes and doggy breath into poignant memorials to beloved companions -- and hot sources of muckraking reporting. Bloggers and owners of sites such as Itchmo, Pet Connection, Howl 911, The Pet Food List and Pet Food Tracker have been deluged by millions of pet owners who are grieving or railing or both -- and digging for answers.

Their online barking is being heard in Washington’s halls of power, including the Food and Drug Administration and Capitol Hill. They have the numbers to howl loudly: Americans own 73 million dogs and 90 million cats.

Just after releasing a letter to the FDA asking for a report on its pet food investigation, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent it to six pet websites that have closely followed the issue.

Durbin’s staffers have posted information on pet blogs and solicited pet owners online for ideas about new legislation. Those suggestions later made their way into an FDA bill amendment sponsored by Durbin, calling for stricter production and labeling standards for pet food, the senator said.

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“The Internet has changed all the rules here in terms of mobilizing public opinion on important issues, and this pet food contamination is a clear illustration,” Durbin said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office.

“Through our website and other websites, we established lines of communication that might never have occurred before the Web.”

The pet food campaign has the hallmarks of other big blog-driven news stories, with dedicated crews of site owners highlighting, commenting on and linking to media reports and official statements. The bloggers dig out and post documents, such as the FDA’s missive advising that pregnant investigators not examine human foods that the FDA has said repeatedly are safe, and they e-mail reporters, government officials, company executives and anyone else who might have a part in the story.

They listen in on FDA conference calls, patiently awaiting the rare chance that the agency’s public relations staffers will call on them, and some “liveblog” their own running transcripts.

“I don’t know of a comparable case,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who writes the media criticism blog PressThink. “It shows what’s possible when people get outraged and they ask themselves, what’s happening here? They actually have the tools to start finding out.”

Unlike many other news stories uncovered or driven by bloggers and Web denizens, this one doesn’t have an easy red state-blue state divide. The pet food issue is nonpartisan -- or as nonpartisan as anything on the unfettered Internet can be.

The pet sites and their audience don’t support political candidates or parties (mostly). They don’t want to drive anyone from office (generally). And they aren’t proclaiming a political bias or trying to out anyone else’s (for the most part).

“Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s everyone’s issue,” said Mike Giacco, 50, a selfdescribed conservative and prolific commenter on several pet sites whose cat, Sir Lancelot, was sickened after eating food involved in the recall.

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It became everyone’s issue, Giacco explained, when the contamination spilled over into the human food chain, with fish and livestock also being fed some of the tainted ingredients or adulterated pet food. The FDA has said that the melamine and related byproducts from China that sickened and killed pets pose little risk to humans.

Giacco, who lives near Orlando, Fla., and is best known to pet-site regulars by just his first name, earns daily recognition from pet bloggers for pointing them toward obscure news releases, smaller publications’ news stories and other documents related to the food contamination. He e-mails the FDA often enough to have earned a phone call from one of the public relations staffers and regularly contacts reporters to keep them briefed on his findings.

Although he’s among the more persistent, Giacco has good company when it comes to wanting information and demanding that his complaints be heard.

The FDA says it has logged about 4,100 consumer reports of pet deaths, though the number could grow as the agency makes its way through a backlog from more than 21,000 total calls. That tally, covering a two-month period, is at least three times what the agency usually gets in a year, a spokeswoman said.

Menu Foods Income Fund, the Canada-based pet food manufacturer that first issued a recall, said in March that it had fielded more than 200,000 calls.

Nielsen/NetRatings said that Web traffic to pet-related sites grew from 9.1 million unique visitors in February to 19.5 million in March. The site for Menu Foods, unknown to most consumers before the recall, drew 12.8 million visits in March, Nielsen said.

Part of the sites’ newfound success is in offering a place for owners of sick and dead pets to commiserate and rage, and to link to photo and video pet tributes featured on various sharing sites around the Web.

Mary Massie, a 32-year-old artist in Charlotte, N.C., posted a video on YouTube called “Pet Food Recall and my cat Mao,” one of dozens of the site’s recall-related video pet obituaries.

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Massie made the three-minute video of the mostly listless tan and brown longhair cat -- with Massie’s hand reaching out from behind the camera to pet him -- the day she had to have the feline euthanized because of kidney failure. The only sound is Massie, crying and telling the cat she loves him.

“The only way I’ve been able to connect with other people who have been directly affected by this is through the Web,” Massie said. “I posted it on the blog and on YouTube, and I found other people who have linked to my video and my posts -- one guy is actually in Holland and he shows the video of my cat and two other cats on his site.”

At the urging of several of the sites, Massie was persuaded to write her first-ever letters to government officials. She joined a “postcard blitz,” drawing a different image of her cat on the front of six white postcards and requesting better attention to food safety on the back. She sent them off to her state representatives, the FDA and Durbin.

Itchmo, Pet Connection and others vow that they’ll continue that kind of pressure and the news gathering on which their readers have begun to rely.

Pet Connection, one of the larger sites that has devoted itself to recall issues, has the advantage of being organized by trained journalists who also write a syndicated pet column for newspapers around the country.

Their work now is a long way from what Gina Spadafori, the site’s executive editor, and Christie Keith, a contributing editor and blogger on the site, were doing before the recall hit.

“In February, we were covering the latest in litter boxes at Global Pet Expo,” Spadafori said. “And in March, I’m suddenly embroiled in an international trade story.”

abigail.goldman@latimes.com


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