Chloe the bulldog, who had 180,000 followers and several brand partnerships, is a case study in a new kind of celebrity death.
Loni Edwards, 34, treated her four-year-old miniature French bulldog Chloe like her baby. “We did everything together. Every flight. Every meeting. We cuddled every night,” said Edwards.
Then tragedy struck.
Chloe went in for a routine surgery and was taken to a 24-hour pet hospital to recover. There, staff mis-calibrated an oxygen machine and blew out the 14lb dog’s lungs. She went into cardiac arrest and died shortly afterwards.
Chloe was more than just Edwards’ “fur baby”. She was also a rising pet celebrity on Instagram, where she went by Chloe the Mini Frenchie, with more than 180,000 followers and several lucrative brand partnerships.
The dog’s death, and Edwards’ subsequent lawsuit against the hospital, challenges the way the US legal system values pets and provides an unsettling case study in what happens when your money-making, Instagram-famous pet dies.
Pets as property
Edwards is a key figure in the world of pet influencers. In 2015, she founded the Dog Agency, a talent management firm for animal social media influencers.
A lawyer by trade, Edwards was inspired to start the agency after brands started messaging Chloe’s account, asking about sponsorship opportunities. She quickly signed up a range of social media superstars including Tuna Melts My Heart, Harlow & Sage and the Dogist and would negotiate deals with brands on their behalf.
When Chloe died on 25 October 2017, Edwards wasn’t able to talk publicly about the incident – beyond an Instagram post notifying Chloe’s fans – over fear she might jeopardise negotiations for compensation from the pet hospital, BluePearl.
The facility had issued a statement acknowledging that Chloe’s death was a “medical error that shouldn’t have happened” and that it was “committed to working with the Edwards family and responding to their concerns”.
A year on, with no resolution from the hospital, Edwards is ready to talk.
Under existing laws, pets are considered to be property. This means that if vet hospital negligence causes the death of a pet, the facility is typically only liable for the replacement cost of the animal, despite the fact that the majority of people view them as deeply loved family members.
“Because pets are considered property and have no rights, there isn’t really vet malpractice or any repercussions when your fur baby is killed,” said Edwards when we met in a dog-friendly WeWork co-working space on Madison Avenue in New York. “That was shocking to me.”When your pet is an Instagram celebrity, it also means loss of earnings. At the time Chloe died, she was on billboard ads for Google’s Pixel smartphone and subway ads for the luxury bedding company Brooklinen; she was also an ambassador for Swiffer cleaning products. She had several other deals in the pipeline and was due to play a starring role at the Dog Agency’s’ inaugural animal influencer event, Petcon.
Edwards won’t reveal the value of the deals that evaporated when Chloe died, but she said that animal influencers with more than 100,000 followers could make anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 per sponsored post.
“She was becoming this huge star in such high demand,” said Edwards. “So it was a huge financial loss.”
In a statement to the Guardian this week, BluePearl said: “We have communicated with the family’s legal representative multiple times and remain committed to working with them.”
Although business is booming for other clients at the Dog Agency, Edwards believes it would be even more successful if Chloe, who would come to brand meetings with her to “help close deals”, was still around.
“Clients would see the reaction they have to her and think: ‘Oh yes, this is what we want promoting our products,’” she said.
Press opportunities have also dwindled in the last year.
“Without Chloe, I’m not as appealing,” she said.
‘It’s a double grief’
It was a similar story for the Los Angeles-based comedy writer Anne Marie Avey, whose furious looking Himalayan-Persian crossbreed cat, Colonel Meow, died in 2014 of a heart attack while he was fighting off a kidney infection.
The “world’s angriest cat”, who referred to his owners as “human slave beasts” and his followers as “minions”, was only two years old. A combination of his acerbic persona and army of fans (about 350,000 on Facebook and 300,000 on Instagram) made the account particularly appealing to advertisers.
“He wasn’t just my cat, he was my muse, too. He was so inspirationally hilarious,” she said.
When Colonel Meow died, a lucrative partnership with Friskies and a book deal died with him.
“It was super confusing. It’s like if your baby was your business and then your baby dies and so does your business,” said Avey. “It’s a double grief.”
Both Avey and Edwards retreated from Instagram after the passing of their pets, but found themselves overwhelmed by the shared outpouring of grief from fans.
“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep for a very long time,” said Edwards, who hasn’t posted to Chloe’s account since the day she died.
Fans sent thousands of messages of condolence, bouquets of flowers, and even paintings of Chloe. “That was really nice,” she said.
However, Chloe’s social media fame also meant it was impossible for Edwards to get through her day without someone bringing up her dead pet. The constant painful reminders made it hard for her to focus on work.
In Avey’s case, some of Colonel’s fans were angered by her lack of communication.“I didn’t post very much and some people go upset that I wasn’t explaining stuff. They loved this animal too,” she said.
After about a month of social media silence, she decided to start posting pictures of Colonel again, keeping the grumpy authoritarian tone, something she found “therapeutic because he was so ridiculously funny looking”.
Avey believes that Colonel’s comedic appeal transcends his short time on Earth.
“Like Prince,” she said, cackling in recognition of the hubris of the comparison. “You are still obsessed with whatever they were.”
Avey has also introduced some of her other pets to the account, which she renamed Colonel Meow and Friends. The “friends” include Papa Puffpants (“He acts like he’s tough but he still gets scared of the vacuum”) and The Brawd (“A little Queen B; the ‘B’ stands for bitchy”), two fluffy but less grumpy-looking felines.
“Some people say things like ‘just the cat please, your voice is annoying’. Well, the cat died,” Avey said. “And who did you think was writing these posts all along?”
The owners of Biddy the Hedgehog, who had 635,000 followers at his peak, knew their 15 minutes were up when he died in 2015. “There were a couple of times we posted ‘in memory of’ photos, but it wasn’t the same. We knew when he passed it was over. We were not going to go out and buy another hedgehog,” said Toni Deweese, who co-owned Biddy with Tom Unterseher.
“Biddy was a great hedgehog and a part of our family, he couldn’t just be replaced,” she said.
The couple has three other pets including Charlie, a corgi-beagle-papillon-chihuahua mix. He has his own moderately successful Instagram account @charlietheminimutt, but at just 31,000 followers it pales into insignificance compared with Biddy’s audience.
Avey’s posts still get thousands of likes, but she’s not been approached with any significant commercial opportunities.
“My vision is to grow into a brand that isn’t just about a famous cat,” she said. “I’m here to show that there are women and men behind these cats. Crazy cat ladies matter.
“No matter how many times the world knocks you down, we can still get up and keep going,” she added.
Edwards wants to use Chloe’s death to campaign for a change to the law to acknowledge that pets are far more than just property – they are deeply loved family members and, in exceptional cases like Chloe’s, they are also lucrative businesses.
She is working with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to raise awareness about the issue, promoting the not-for-profit group’s #NotProperty social media campaign.
“Pets are not objects like cars or tables that can just be replaced,” said Edwards. “I will do everything in my power to push for change. I don’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else’s fur baby.”