By Julie V. Iovine
“DON’T overlook the pet industry. It’s big!” said David Lang, the owner of Pet Chauffeur, as he swiveled around at a red light and pointed a digital camera at the two Labradors drooling in the back seat of his bright orange minivan. ”Can I put them on my new Web site?”
Four years ago, Mr. Lang was the delivery guy for a pet store. Today he operates a five-minivan livery service with six drivers on call to drive the city’s most well-heeled dogs to their increasingly hectic weekly rounds of acupuncture, swim therapy, massage and grooming appointments. Pet Chauffeur even drove a miniature schnauzer to Atlanta recently for a man who refused to put his pet on an airplane. The dog’s trip cost $1,736. The man flew.
If the word of advice for ”The Graduate” in 1967 was ”plastics,” in 2000, think ”dogs.” There are 55 million pet dogs in the United States, and 43 percent of owners celebrated their dogs’ birthdays with a wrapped gift. So says an American Animal Hospital Association 1999 Pet Owner Survey that also found that 84 percent of pet owners referred to themselves as their animal’s mom or dad.
On Wednesday, Mr. Lang was dropping a couple of dogs off at the opening party for Biscuits and Bath Doggy Village at 227 East 44th Street. It’s the latest in extreme dog services that have many dog-lovers panting for more, and the rest of the population aghast. ”A lot of people are deluding themselves that animals have the same agendas and appreciations as themselves,” said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the author of ”The Dog Who Loved Too Much” and ”Dogs Behaving Badly,” both published by Bantam. He noted that turning pets into surrogate children is the natural outcome of younger couples’ delaying reproduction and empty-nesters’ trying to keep a few warm dependent bodies around. ”The fact is that pets are now regarded as family, and people want to do anything they can for them,” he added.
But for every $450 cashmere dog sweater with a Gucci logo, and every bottle of Oh My Dog perfume now on holiday display at Saks, there also seems to be a new enlightened veterinary office or health center like Bonnie’s K9, which opened this fall in Chelsea offering underwater massage to ease the pain of dogs with cancer. The new Biscuits and Bath Doggy Village treads the line between excess and amenity. Petophobes, steer clear.
Housed in a former carriage house, the Doggy Village is a Health and Racquet Club for dogs and cats. Annual memberships start at $1,000. Lunch is available for both humans and dogs.
The village spreads over five floors, each with a greensward of AstroTurf the size and length of two bowling alleys. ”Why not have a wonderful place where people can play with their dogs freely and learn to be a better parent?” said Sandy Zuchert, the co-founder, with her sons Robert Zuchert and John Ziegler, of the 28,000-square-foot facility that cost $1.3 million to renovate.
The decor is Pet Provencal, possibly in honor of the French, who treat their dogs like full citizens of the state. There are white-washed picket fences around the plastic greens, bleached red-tile floors, blue-and-white striped awnings, a cafe around a gazebo, and strategically placed cement sculptures of dogs and cats in playful postures. The 30-foot lap pool in the basement is decorated with hand-painted tiles featuring ducks. On a tour, the two Labradors didn’t notice the birds. ”But did you see the cabana where we’ll blow-dry the doggies’ hair by hand?” Ms. Zuchert asked, as she bent over to greet one of the Labs with a mouth-to-mouth kiss reminiscent of a similarly riveting one in the movie ”Something About Mary.”
Though Ms. Zuchert, 62, compares the place most often to Central Park without restraint laws, it is also a day care and overnight boarding facility. Cats are kept in a neonatal-like ward with cages overlooking an aquarium and a wicker rocking chair. Ms. Zuchert calls it the ”kitty condos.” Drop-off dogs are taken outside every two hours to relieve themselves. While the two Labs were terrified of the steep stairs and their claws grated on the tile floors, they bounded happily out onto the turf. The indoor pool was another story. There was no way they were going to take a dip — too claustrophobic and redolent of chlorine for a couple of outdoor dogs with webbed feet.
Doggy Village is to a kennel what Ian Schrager’s Hudson is to Midtown hotels. Social chemistry will be everything. The restaurant on the top floor is meant to be a scene. Les Deux Magots in Paris it’s not, but there are intimate little tables with metal chairs gathered around a gazebo where humans can buy snack meals for themselves and organic treats for their pets while they all watch each other frolic. There are plans for book readings, parties and ”lectures for children on neutering,” Ms. Zuchert said. Animal education by way of puppy-training classes and behavior modification courses will be promoted in a big way. A veterinary doctor will be on the premises, available by appointment.
There will be agility classes — the latest update on show-off Frisbee throwing to golden retrievers in bandanas. It’s a workout: dogs race through a course, part steeple, part military obstacle. They slalom, they jump, they balance on see-saws, run through tubes, over ramparts, under bars and burst through something that looks like a collapsed parachute. The two guest Labs watched in muted horror, their tales stiff, while a visiting vizsla went berserk with anticipation. Andrea Arden, a professional dog trainer who will be conducting the classes, said any able-bodied dog can learn in a few months. Six group lessons cost $300.
Doggy Village is a vastly expanded version of the Zucherts’ Biscuits and Bath Gym at 1535 First Avenue and the Biscuits and Bath boutique, a much smaller operation focused on grooming at 255 East 74th Street. But it was Ms. Zuchert’s son John who started the ball rolling in 1990 with a dog-walking business he ran after graduating from high school. ”I was modeling and acting at the time and kind of neurotic about my dog,” Mr. Ziegler, 29, said. One day he tailed the dog walker to see if she would go to Central Park, where she was supposed to go. (”Don’t you ever follow your dog walker?” he asked.) Instead, she took his dog into a nearby building. ”I knew I could do much better than that,” Mr. Ziegler said. Last year, Biscuits and Bath Gym listed 800 paying members.
Part of the business is a nonprofit rescue fund. Stray dogs and cats on death row at the Center for Animal Control and Care will be brought in monthly for visits and cleaned up in the hopes of finding the animals homes. ”You go into the shelters and the animals are terrified and running around,” Mr. Ziegler said. ”Who’s going to take these dirty cyclones? Here, they’ll look clean and smell good. It’ll give them a chance to meet someone who really wants them.”
There were several homeless dogs at the opening party on Wednesday. A television crew milled around the cafe’s gazebo in anticipation of a ”wedding” to be staged between two former strays, Max and Cinder. The bitch wore an outfit donated by Vera Wang. Bruce Hammer, an onlooker who keeps his dog on Long Island, appeared touched. ”I foresee not just dogs getting married,” he said, ”but people getting married who meet while watching their dogs right here.” Unmoved, the two Labs yanked their leashes and headed for the door.