Friday, May 13, 2011

Thinking Inside the Litter Box

As something of a follow-up to my previous essay regarding unsold book concepts, I've unearthed another snippet from yet another project that never saw the light of day. The material is originally from an unpublished work entitled REIGNING CAT$ AND DOG$. However, there is some good news to report here. You see, I’ve long been a recycler of my ideas—at least the ones I consider durable—until an interested suitor comes along. So, while the aforementioned title will remain largely unread by the masses, this little cat litter vignette below can also be found in 101 Best Businesses for Pet Lovers, which I humbly commend to those of you contemplating an entrepreneurial spin within this dynamic commercial trade. I call it "Thinking Inside the Litter Box" and make reference to my many years working for a retailer called Pet Nosh:

Cat litters and cat litter boxes have carved out a sizable niche in the pet care industry at large. As the cat litter spectrum widened beyond recognition through the years, I witnessed consumers grappling time and again with the copious changes and additional options at their disposal.

During my fledgling years as a Pet Nosh employee, I lugged—in aggregate—multiple tons of cat litter to customers’ cars and delivered comparable hefty sums to their humble abodes. In the early 1980s, Pet Nosh’s biggest cat litter seller—by far—was the Hartz Mountain brand packaged in orange and yellow paper bags. Although this litter was a bargain, it could better be described as dust incarnate. It stuck to you like flies stick to you know what. Its insidious dust particles consumed every pore of your body. Your nostrils couldn’t help but suck it all in. Very literally, the stuff grossly contaminated your clothes all the way down to your underwear—it was that potent. Hartz Mountain brand was a basic clay cat litter, which was, with few exceptions, what was on the market back then.

The very first commercial kitty litter has a remarkable and downright inspiring story behind it—particularly if you are an inventor, entrepreneurial sort, or combination of the two. Permit me now to give you the low down—or, more aptly, the Lowe down—on where it all began. Cat litter’s modest origins can be traced back to the small town of Cassopolis, Michigan, circa 1948. Then and there—so the story goes—a woman named Kay Draper paid a call on her neighbors, the Lowes, who operated an industrial absorbent company in town. She had what could best be described as a funky problem—a genuine dilemma—on her hands. Ms. Draper, you see, like many people from that simpler, less complicated epoch, employed garden-variety sand in her cat’s privy. I can't refer to it as a litter box, because cat litter didn’t yet exist.

To make a long story short, an extended period of harsh winter weather had left Kay Draper’s outdoor sand pile as rock-solid as a pre-global warming glacier in the Arctic Circle. Sans ready access to her sand source, she improvised with ashes from her fireplace, which, by the way, was working overtime in the ultra-frigid weather. When, alas, Kay’s feline friend left a widespread and very conspicuous series of untidy paw prints throughout the entire house, her substitution went up in smoke, as it were. And to add insult to injury, the fireplace ashes did nothing to temper the ghastly malodor that so often accompanies kitty wastes. At wit’s end, Kay asked her entrepreneurial neighbors if they knew of something—anything—she could put in her cat’s biffy while her sand was literally on ice.

Enter twenty-seven-year-old Ed Lowe to the rescue. Just back home from World War II and a stint in the navy, he attacked this stinking matter with all guns a blazing. Ed saw no reason why the family business’s kiln-dried clay—called Fuller’s Earth—could not suffice as cat urine absorbent. After all, it was immensely popular with automobile garages and other businesses at the mercy of chemical spills. So, he gave Kay Draper a bag full to try. And, lo and behold—or Lowe and behold—she loved it and began recommending it to her friends with house cats.

Fast-forwarding a bit, Lowe hit the road and visited hundreds of pet shops and cat shows, enthusiastically promoting his pioneering pet product. When he reached retirement age in 1990, Lowe’s net worth surpassed $200 million. Cats and cat litter had made the man a multi-millionaire. Ed Lowe’s trailblazing efforts on behalf of cat litter—he even coined the term “kitty litter”—inspired more and more people to welcome their felines into the great indoors. So many, in fact, that cats now reign supreme as the number one pet in American households.

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