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Portland's role-playing bulldog is a natural card
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Has it been "one of those days" all year?

If 2006 has left you feeling a little bit chewed up and spit out, it's time to embrace a little Zelda wisdom. This bulldog's one-liners may be a cure to what ails you. And they may just inspire you to dream big.

elda is a 10-year-old Portland bulldog of, uh, unconventional beauty who graces a line of greeting cards, gift books and calendars. She dispenses pithy gems of wisdom with the help of her human soul mate and interpreter, Carol Gardner. This dog may be one of the most popular pooches on the planet right now. There are a line of 82 greeting cards sold at Hallmark stores. There is a series of "Zelda Wisdom" books. Her image has even been licensed internationally. She dispenses advice to Russians in Russian, to the Dutch in Dutch and to Estonians in Estonian. Her image is on bobble-head dolls, snow globes, Christmas ornaments, and sits on top of wedding cakes (she plays the groom while her good buddy Zoe plays the bride).

It all started out when this pooch and her owner were underdogs.

Carol Gardner got a dog for her husband -- it was a good trade. It was 1997, and the darkest time of Gardner's life. She was 52, going through a "nasty divorce," jobless and in debt. Gardner's divorce attorney joked to her client that she should get therapy -- or a dog. She opted for a puppy. "I always wanted a bulldog, because they made me laugh," she says. She found a bulldog puppy in her neighborhood for sale in The Oregonian classified ads. "I named her Zelda because of the 'Z'," says Gardner. "I felt that what looked like the end might be the beginning." And it was.

When a friend told Gardner that Purina had a contest that gave the winner free dog food for a year, the cash-strapped former advertising creative director entered her dog. She put a Santa cap on Zelda and placed her in a bathtub filled with bubble bath. The caption: "For Christmas I got a dog for my husband . . . good trade, huh?" Zelda's pithy view of divorce won the contest. Gardner got an idea. Why not develop a line of cards with Zelda as the star?

"No one had ever taken a live dog, given it a name and designed cards around it," says Gardner. Zelda, with her human-like expression, was a natural. "She's a magnified version of all of us. There is something in her eyes and heart that the camera captures," says Gardner. She asked photographer Shane Young if he would take photos in exchange for being on the ground level of her dream. She convinced a printer to wait 90 days for payment of the first cards.

Zelda Wisdom cards went on sale in a few Portland stores and were an instant hit. The philosophical lesson that Gardner learned during the experience made its way to a Zelda card: "Leap . . . and a net will appear."

For the love of a dog: Gardner is savvy entrepreneur who used her advertising background and knack for publicity to create a hugely successful business from one puppy's appealing face. But make no mistake: This is first a love story between a woman and her dog.

When I visited the "house that Zelda built," Zelda and 2-year-old ZeeZee noisily made sure this pet columnist wasn't an intruder. (Another Zelda understudy, 6-year-old Zoe, lives with Gardner's father.) Like any besotted dog owner, Gardner occasionally stopped the conversation to point out how adorable Zelda was as the dog snored next to the fireplace. Or looked up with those famous eyes. Or splayed down, frog-like, on the cool surface of the kitchen floor. Just like the rest of us, Gardner just happens to own the very best dog in the entire world. This pudgy pooch is a muse. "I'm Zelda's interpreter," says Gardner. And, like any of us who are hopelessly in love with our dogs, she really does get her wisdom from Zelda. "I try to lead my life in ways I learn from Zelda: being there for friends and family, being a good person," says Gardner.

Another bad day. It was the love of Zelda that helped one night this year when Gardner thought her good luck had run out. Gardner is a Type 1 diabetic, but has kept the disease under control. On Oct, 2, she checked her blood sugar before going to bed, and it was just where it ought to be. The next memory was searing, unrelenting pain. For reasons still unknown, her blood sugar plummeted and she lost consciousness, she says. She fell from her bed, and broke her neck in the fall.

"The thought came to me, 'I'm going to die,' " she says. She remembers Zelda sitting next to her as she held her neck with one hand and painfully pulled herself across the floor with the other. It was about 15 feet to her telephone and the call to 9-1-1. When the paramedics came, Zelda stayed quietly with her owner instead of her usual barking at the door.

"She waited right beside me," says Gardner. After three weeks in the hospital, Gardner came home to Zelda's gentle care. "If I've been gone, usually Zelda will jump up and down when she sees me. This time, she was all calm and collected and gave me the support I needed."

Gardner is expected to make a full recovery, and already is seeing humor in the situation. She had a photo taken with her giant neck brace, holding Nora Ephron's book "I Hate My Neck," that she sent to the author. She's quicker to talk about the friends and family who have helped her out than about how frightening the injury was. As one Zelda card reminds us: "Tough times never last . . . tough people do.

The surprising rewards: Zelda Wisdom started as a career opportunity. It evolved into a calling. "Initially, I was in tough financial circumstances. My biggest reward isn't what I expected it to be. It's hearing from people who say, 'Thank you. You made me smile,' " she says. Zelda's one-liners aren't as elementary as they seem: People often find profound thoughts in the simple sentences. Many of the million hits a month that Gardner's Web site receives comes from people who say that Zelda made a difference in their lives.

Gardner tells about a woman who wrote a few weeks ago. She was a New Orleans emergency room nurse who spent the weeks after Hurricane Katrina working at a hospital. When she finally went home, she found her home and possessions destroyed. The one thing that remained was a Zelda doll, dressed as the devil, with a message of persistence: "Going through hell? Keep going."

"To her, it was a message," says Gardner.

Once her neck is fully healed, Gardner plans to go back to giving lectures around the county encouraging people to follow their dreams and go "From Underdog to Top Dog." Zelda wisdom laces that talk. "You realize you don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be young. You don't have to be wrinkle-free. It's finding what makes you happy and doing some soul-searching."

For now, Zelda and her young understudies are hanging out with their favorite interpreter. Who knows where the muse will take them next?

This last week of the year is a good time for all of us to dream where our dogs (and cats, guinea pigs, parrots, ferrets and bunnies) might take us in 2007. Zelda proves that animals can lead us to magical places, if we only believe in their wisdom.



The Good, The Bad,
and the Whatever

In Zelda's sixth book,she shares some of the never-before-seen photographs that were left on the cutting room floor. The blooper images paired with the final images createa new kind of Zelda book. As Zelda says, "If you don't make mistakes, you won't make anything."

Decorating made simple when it includes Zelda's straight shooting wisdom and sharp wit!