McDonnell grew up in the 1960s reading the “Peanuts” comic strip, which inspired him to become a cartoonist. In his heart, he said he considered Snoopy “my first dog.”
McDonnell’s first dog, Earl, a fun-loving Jack Russell terrier who lived to be nearly 19, inspired one of the main characters in “Mutts.” The artist wasn’t quite sure what to name the dog in the cartoon; fittingly, his hero, Schulz, suggested the perfect name.
“He said I should name him after my own dog. And I thought maybe he knew what he was talking about, so I took that advice,” he said. “That’s how Earl got his name.”
In “Mutts”, Earl loves his owner, Ozzie, and hangs out with his best friend, a cat named Mooch. His zest for life is a key element of the comic.
“I always thought if I could capture her love of life on the page, I was doing my job,” McDonnell said. “Earl was so fun and so smart, and just another soul. I didn’t think of him as a dog, really. I just thought of him as a best friend.
McDonnell wanted his characters to act like animals rather than people in animal costumes, so he tried to imagine their perspectives, which changed his own.
“Seeing the world through the eyes of a dog or a cat and other animals, I started to realize how tough animals were on this planet, and that slowly became part of that. band – in particular, ‘Shelter Stories’.”
McDonnell realized that while the “Mutts” characters Earl and Mooch loved loving homes, many real-life animals lived in shelters waiting for that opportunity. So in 1996, McDonnell began devoting two weeks of “Mutts” each year to sharing the stories of pets he encounters in animal shelters.
Back then, adopting an animal from a shelter was not as commonplace or as a source of pride as it is today. McDonnell said one of the most gratifying aspects of her career has been how many people have told her they adopted a pet from reading “Mutts.”
“Nothing makes me happier than when someone lets me know they were inspired to have a dog in their shelter or a cat in their shelter because of my strip,” he said.
The steady cast of characters also offers hope for positive change. For example, Guard Dog is a great softie that reminds readers why dogs don’t deserve to be chained up in yards.
McDonnell said his goal for the strip was to be entertaining rather than didactic. “Mutts” manages to balance light humor with heartfelt themes. Occasionally, “Mutts” highlights inspirational quotes from luminaries like the late poet and author Maya Angelou.
The “Mutts” comics have been compiled into more than 20 books – a special 25th anniversary book titled “The Art of Nothing” comes out October 15 – and McDonnell is donating 5% of proceeds from books and other merchandise purchased on MUTTS .com to the Humane Society of the United States. He also donates signed “Mutts” prints to any animal shelter or rescue organization that requests one for a fundraiser to help pets.
“Shelters have come so far over the past 25 years. I’m really excited about it,” he said. “People are now proud to pick up a shelter animal. Thanks to good people who dedicate their lives to helping animals, there has been a lot of progress.