Liz Reim and Jennifer Eachus aren’t famous, but their pets are.
“When I met my husband five years ago – after we met, he was like, ‘I’m Facebook friends with your cat,’” Eachus says, wondering at the absurdity of it all. Her one-eyed cat, Willie Hodge, is a bit of a local celebrity, with 6,000 Facebook followers, while Reim’s dogs, three-legged Chihuahua Sadie Tripawd and long-haired dachshund Knox the Dox, have a combined following of well over 200,000 people across various social media streams. One photo, of puppy Knox in pajamas, was shared by rapper Snoop Dogg on Instagram.
They’re kind of a big deal.
Some people seek this kind of Internet fame, yet neither Reim nor Eachus did: they simply started sharing stories or videos of their pets online and sizable followings appeared. In Reim’s case, Sadie’s Vine followers ballooned from a handful to 30,000 overnight. Granted, audiences were primed by earlier online phenomena like LOLcats or superstar pets like Grumpy Cat or Lil Bub. But it’s not just cats, Reim points out: Doug the Pug and Tuna, a Chihuahua/dachshund mix with enormous eyes and an aggressive underbite, are two dogs with staggering follower counts.
Whether commenting on skateboarding dog videos or simply scrolling through pictures of a one-eyed orange tabby in a tuxedo, Reim and Eachus feel people are by and large seeking an escape from negativity, a break from whatever stresses they’re under. Even though they want to raise awareness of the needs – and joys – of special needs pets, the real reason they keep photographing and captioning these animals is to spread positivity.
“Puppies are endorphins,” says Reim, who lives in Durham. After all, Sadie and Knox counterbalance the serious aspects of her life the same as they do for their online followers. She’s on the home stretch at law school at North Carolina Central University, with graduation looming in May. Managing her dogs’ online accounts provides a counterbalance to the seriousness and hard work of earning her degree.
“How do you come up with these captions?” Reim has been asked. “Your hashtags are ridiculous.”
“It’s probably because I’m losing my mind in law school,” she replies.
It’s also a chance for Reim, who studied English as an undergrad and has a drama background, to stretch her creative muscles. Each dog’s online presence has a distinct theme and voice: Sadie’s page focuses on her story as a strong dog and a survivor, while Knox is more of a goofball.
Willie Hodge’s personality shines through on his page as well.
“He wears clothes. He’s always dressed up,” says Eachus. “If he’s not dressed up and there’s a picture on Facebook, people ask why he’s naked.” At pet rescue fundraisers he shows up dressed to the nines, wearing a tuxedo.
When he’s out with Eachus, this cat’s in “Willie mode.” He sits shotgun in her car or hangs out at the Cat Clinic of Cary, which the veterinarian Eachus owns. He visits local schools and assisted living centers. He’s been sneaked into restaurants and stores and he’s gone boating and camping. When Willie’s at home in Clayton, though, he reverts to a regular cat, and he runs with Eachus’ other nine cats (she also has six dogs). The moment he leaves the house he becomes incredibly laid back.
“The way he can balance his demeanor back and forth like that is absolutely amazing to me,” says Eachus. “There will never be another cat like him.”
Yet Willie goes everywhere with his person because of a medical need. He can’t empty his bladder without help, so he can’t be left alone. Most of Eachus’ 16 pets have special needs, such as a one-eyed French bulldog with paralyzed back legs. Her name: Eye-Lean.
Special needs pets
On social media, Willie roots for special needs pets like himself and his adoptive siblings. Sadie’s presence is similar. Years ago, she lost one front leg after a fall and botched surgery. The Chihuahua adapted well, and clambers around on Reim’s couch with catlike confidence, yet she’s small and fragile. When she miscalculated and fell off a chair about two years ago, she broke her remaining front leg. Her followers rushed to help, sending thousands of dollars to help with vet bills and positive thoughts.
“After she got hurt we were getting emails from cancer patients and amputees, all kinds of people who connected to her story,” Reim says.
It may be such a strong connection because Sadie is real and her struggles and successes are real as well. This is what Eachus has noticed with Willie, at least. People talk directly to him and engage him – it doesn’t matter that she’s the one posting the pictures or crafting the captions.
Eachus and Reim are both OK taking backseats to their pets. A handful of Reim’s personal Instagram followers found her through her famous dogs, and once a Cary pizza delivery driver recognized Sadie, but that’s about it; nobody has ever made her feel uncomfortable. She has made good friends through the famous pets community, done some ads with Knox and Sadie, and welcomed the admitted strangeness of her dogs’ accidental celebrity.
Neither she nor Eachus sought this, but they’re enjoying the ride.
“I have a friend from high school and we were just being silly. She was like, ‘Set up a page for your cat.’ I was like, ‘Why? Are you kidding me?’” says Eachus, recalling how Willie’s fame started. “I set it up and the page took off. I wish I could tell you how it took off, but I don’t have a clue.”