For all the great things the Internet is supposed to do, in the U.S., we mostly use it as a toy. We're not collaborating on Facebook to find a cure for cancer, or reform Congress, or bring down dictators like people have tried to do in the Middle East. Instead, we use the web to share photos of cute puppies and kitties.
You probably have a friend who's a diehard follower of Instadog celebrities, and you probably think they're slightly crazy. Even then, what happened this weekend in West L.A. with Tuna takes dog-fandom to a whole new level.
On Sunday, from 1-3 p.m., more than 200 people came out to a WagAware event near Sawtelle to see the celebrity chiweenie who's been dubbed (in typical Internet hyperbole) “the most inspiring dog on the Internet.” The event was hosted by NKLA, or No-Kill Los Angeles, a rescue organization with the goal of stopping euthanization of all L.A. pet animals by 2017.
In recent months, shelters like NKLA and fundraisers like WagAware have been teaming up to produce meet-and-greet appearances for famous dogs, like Tuna, who have garnered celebrity status via Instagram.
Tuna's appearance on Sunday, like all of his appearances, was strictly limited to two hours. Courtney Dasher, Tuna's owner, doesn't want him overexposed.
“At the end of the event he gets tired,” Dasher's assistant says, eyeing Tuna adoringly across the room. “He falls asleep in people's arms. It's the cutest thing ever.”
Tuna is cute. There's no way around it. Though his face elicits Picasso more than Monet (his strange snout is both hideously ugly and insanely attractive), his photos are like brain candy – little bursts of pleasure come with each flick of the finger.
Few are immune from the Tuna effect. His follower count has doubled in the past six months, from around 400,000 to 755,066 (at the time of writing). The last Tuna event in L.A. drew huge crowds, including skateboarder, reality TV star, and Tuna fanboy Rob Dyrdek.
Tuna is a popular Buzzfeed list subject, and, according to Dasher, he'll soon be a guest on major talkshows.
“After he went viral on Reddit,” Dasher says, “Anderson Cooper called. Then all the hosts started calling.”
Dasher is a blonde in her early thirties. She looks a lot like Kirsten Dunst, and has a similar perky-yet-together demeanor – half-cheerleader, half-CEO. When it comes to Tuna, she's caring and attentive, but not overbearing.
Tuna was a bit skittish at first, kind of nervy and shaky. When he walked through the double doors at NKLA, with his (human) entourage in tow, he did what any good L.A. celebrity must do, and promptly shit on the floor. After his warmups – scurrying around the room, sniffing things, returning to Dasher, scurrying again – he calmed down.
After that, people arrived in clumps to the small, sunny room, where Tuna scampered around in front of a photo backdrop. The line was long – not around-the-block long, but consistent, maybe 20-30 people queued up at any given time. After buying a WagAware charm (sort of like a Livestrong bracelet for dogs) for $14.95, the price of entry, each guest spent 1-2 minutes with the celebri-pup. Some people picked him up and cuddled him, got a couple Instagram shots, and moved on. Others brought their own dogs, who posed with Tuna, and tried, but inevitably failed, to match his radiating cuteness.
But while he's a big deal now, Tuna began his career in the gutter … literally. He was picked up on a side of the road in San Diego and taken to a shelter in L.A. before Dasher rescued him from a dog rescue tent at Larchmont Farmer's Market.
At the time, “I didn't feel ready to have a dog full-time,” says Dasher. “Sometimes you feel like you're ready to rescue something, and that's how I felt at first. But sometimes the thing ends up rescuing you.”
Tuna has become Dasher's full-time career. Two weeks ago, she quit her job as an interior designer to dedicate her life to promoting and touring with Tuna. Their first big tour, covering eight Eastern cities including Nashville, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston, starts next week.
Tuna isn't the only Instagram dog celebrity; he's just the most famous. Digby Van Winkle and Biggie Smalls both have well over 100,000 followers, with several other Instadogs in hot pursuit. One such dog celeb, Daisy the Underbite, with 18,000 followers of her own, showed up on Sunday.
What Daisy, Tuna, Digby and Biggie all share in common a sort of kitschy ugliness, a consistent trait among successful Instadogs. These days we don't want our celebrity dogs to be just perfect and pretty, Westminster kennel club specimens in the flesh. On the Internet, you have to be fundamentally flawed too.
It was clear Sunday that, however silly the hoopla,Tuna makes people happy. What's more, he represents a new version of the old American dream, a warped reminder of the rags-to-riches story we used to tell our kids, and ourselves, to inoculate against darker times. Now the only way most of us can live our fantasies of wealth and fame is by singing along to rap songs – or finding a stray pup so adorable that his fame allows us to quit our day jobs. It's hard online for people, but for dogs, the dream is real, and it's only just beginning.