Bud Wright is the soft-drawling, wire-rimmed general manager of Texas Farm Products, which for 50 years has been selling much of the Southwest its livestock feed and fertilizer. This is Wright's first time at the Pet Food Institute convention, a four-day affair that closes this morning at the Hyatt Regency.
Farmers and pet food purchasers, as Wright will tell you since Texas Farm Products recently entered the pet food business, are two different breeds.
When was the last time somebody asked you to sit their hog for the weekend? Ever heard of Moo Mix -- the only food cows ask for by name? Morris the sheep?
"People buy for their pets as they would for their children," says Wright, who hired a high-priced advertising agency to help his new pet food line off the shelves and into the shopping bags of poodle-parents in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
"We did a survey -- which you have to do before anything -- to find what people considered important in choosing pet food. And you know, price was way down the list," says Wright.
"What people said they were most interested in was nutritional value, and whether their dog would like it and therefore eat it. If their dog liked it, then they liked it."
We're not talking chopped liver here. We're talking specialty digest of liver. We're talking egg analog, condensed fish solubles, peanut shell pellets, dry and semi-moist, microwave moisture sensors and the importance of anthropomorphism.
We're talking pet food.
There were about 250 people at the Hyatt this week who knew that egg analog is not a high-protein computer food but an egg-based mixture used to flavor canned pet food. They were the nationwide representatives of the $3.3 billion businesses of pet feeding. The Washington-based Pet Food Institute, which sponsored the 22nd annual convention, claims its members make up 95 percent of the industry, as well as many related businesses, such as packaging, processing and transporting.
Business is up, too: Sales in pounds have been rising by a relatively steady 3 percent since 1975. Cat food sales are up about $10 million over last year; dog food sales are up about $8 million.
Dry foods -- including the new soft dry" variety -- seem to be doing best. Canned pet food is down. So is moist. Semi-moist, not entirely the same thing as semi-dry, is semi-up.
The industry, says Ed Fuhrman, head of General Foods' pet food division (makers of Gainesburgers, Cycle and Top Choice, in dog food sales second only to all-around industry leader Ralston-Purina), is definitely growing.
And changing. The preceding statistics were brought to the pet food convention -- as they have been for the past 10 years -- by the A.C. Nielson Co. Maybe you've heard of them.
Chris Bauerle has. She's the producer of "Two's Company," a midday 30-minute talk show on Baltimore's WMAR-TV, and she's at the convention's Communication Workshop to help the conventiongoers get themselves on TV back home.
"Visuals," she says, suggesting another thing the local pet food merchant should bring along when approaching the local public-affairs television producer for a spot on the air. "Visuals are all-important. We are not radio. We love visuals. Bring visuals."
A dog that sings. A trainer who can make total strangers' dogs sit, lie-down, roll over. No slides, please.
Art Harris, who runs the Hi-Vi Dog Food Co. in Oklahoma, brought no slides to the local TV station in Oklahoma City when he showed up for a call-in show. He had agreed, inadvertently, he says, to be billed as a "pet care specialist."
He stood up at the workshop to read to Bauerle and the others a list of the questions he was asked.
"How do you tell if a cat is pregnant?" he was asked. "What can I do about hair loss above the ears of a bassett hound?" he was asked.
Not one person asked him about the soybean meal content of canned dog food. The last caller, in fact, asked him, "How do you tell if a lizard is pregnant?"
If the pet food industry fed lizards, as a matter of fact, it probably would suggest taking one to a veterinarian to be sure. And for gosh sakes, if you're not going to breed lizards professionally, consider having it spayed.
Responsible pet care and the selling thereof to the public was supposed to be the theme of the convention's communication workshop -- that is, until it was stolen, says public affairs committee chairman Manual Leitao, for use as the theme of the whole convention.
"There are lots of humane reasons to promote responsible pet ownership" says Leitao, chairman of the board of the Cadillac (dog food) subsidiary of the U.S. Tobacco Co.
"There's been lots of research done on the psychological value of pets to people -- especially young children and the aged -- and it's been shown that a child who has a pet learns responsibility by having it and having to take care of it.
"And, of course, promoting this attitude of responsibility and good care of pets has lots of commercial value to the industry in general," says Leitao.
Of course, promoting this attitude of responsibility and good care of pets has lots of commercial value to the industry in general," says Leitao.
Of course, says someone nearby, but what about that group on the West Coast that uses pets as therapy for institutionalized elderly people?
"Yes," says Leitao, "the word for all of this is anthromorph . . . morpho . . . "
The convention-stopper, which means the imparting of human characteristics to animals, is anthropomorphism. If nothing else anthropomorphism explains why manufacturers put dye in some types of moist foods to make them appear meat-red.
Dogs are colorblind. Dogs also very rarely do the family shopping.
Pet food companies spent more than $155 million last year on television advertising. All of it was in color.
Some of it also was live. Thomas M. Durkin, outgoing chairman of the Pet Food Institute and communications chief for Allen Products (makers of Alpo, Alamo and Liva-Snaps), says Allen has been doing live TV spots since 1947.
"A lot of people think we starve the dogs before the spots," says Durkin of the Alpo commercials most often seen on the "Tonight" and "Good Morning America" shows, wherein a dog -- usually a large dog -- gets to eat after Ed McMahon or David Hartman has told you how complete and balanced Alpo is. "But we don't. We feed them on their regular schedule. Every time we do one of those commercials, we're talking max risk."
Here, Max! $5An Irish setter once assaulted Dick Cavett for the Alpo, while Cavett held it as high over his head as possible. Cavett finally put the dish down after the setter began eating from it even as it was held aloft.
A dog named Hernandez was caught in traffic when the time came for Ed McMahon to feed him in front of some 15 million "Tonight" viewers. When it was time to serve the Alpo, who showed up on all fours? Johnny Carson.