The Animal Connection: How it All Began

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 Written By Barbara O’Brien

I had seven (count them, seven!) jobs in one year before I started my own business, the Animal Connection.
Ok, I was young. Twenty-one to be exact. Kevin and I had been married for three years and we had moved at least that many times. We were now renting an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Woodbury, Minnesota.
We met in college and eloped the beginning of our junior year. We soon discovered that we both needed to work full time, and then some, to make ends meet. Something had to give and, sadly, it was school.
So began the year of many jobs.
Even though we were in the middle of recession, low paying jobs were still easy to find and I was quickly hired as a waitress at a hotel restaurant. I enjoyed meeting the business people and families that were traveling but I hated the lack of hours and even more, the lack of tips.
My sister hosted a Tupperware party and as I watched the demonstrator, I thought, “I could do that”. I talked to her after the party and within weeks I had immersed myself into the world of party selling.
The first few months were great. My friends and families hosted parties for me and sales were good. But it didn’t take long before everyone I knew had purchased all the Tupperware they could possibly use. Finding new customers was really hard so I even tried what they called a fundraising party. I took my little sales pitch a meeting of my local high school band backers meeting. They were polite at first as I explained how they would get 10 percent of the sales from their party but after a few minutes they began to get irritated with me and pertly much booed me from the podium. I was devastated. I was just trying to help them and they thought I was a joke. Maybe I was a joke. 

“What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road.

I started to cry as I was driving home. “What a loser! I can’t even sell Tupperware.” I was crying so hard I could barely see the road. What I did see was a police car flash his lights, signaling for me to pull over. I did and the police officer came to my window. I rolled it down, and choked out the words, “Yes…what did I do?”   He shined his flashlight at me and into the car and asked, “ Have you been drinking tonight?”
“No…no…!” I sobbed. “I am a Tupperware lady and I had a really bad night.” He must’ve pitied me because after of few minutes of making sure I wasn’t a danger to others he let me go. Thus ended my career as a Tupperware lady.
I answered an ad in a newspaper for a survey taker that paid five dollars per completed survey. It was a fun job. All I had to do was go into small main street type businesses and ask them to fill out a questionnaire about their insurance needs. The people in the small towns I visited were kind and most of them took the time to answer my questions. I liked seeing what they were doing and they seemed happy be running their own business. I liked the job and completed over 30 surveys in the first two days. On day three when I went to pick up more surveys the doors were locked and the company gone. I found out later that the Minnesota Attorney General booted them out of the state for fraudulent business practices. Apparently you couldn’t use false surveys to generate insurance leads.
I then talked my way into a desk job at the Minnesota Humane Society. It was not a shelter but more of a legislative and enforcement agency. I did paperwork and accompanied the humane investigator when she went out on calls. It was a great job but after a few months a new director came and, “in with the new and out with the old.” I was part of the old.
After that I tried to make a living as an artist and sold some of my animal designs to stationery companies but that wasn’t moving fast enough to pay the bills. I took another restaurant job but, again, not enough tips and hours. I tried to work as a fitness instructor but I have to tell you, I almost died. How do those people do that?
It was then that I was hired as a receptionist at a one-man construction company.  The company built waste treatment plants. And since the company only built one plant at a time there wasn’t much to do except answer the phone and water the plants. The owner was rarely in, so I entertained myself by reading whatever magazines came in the mail.

“It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times.”

My favorite was the Minnesota Business Journal. It was full of local-boy-makes-good stories and small companies that were making it even during tough times. I was inspired by these articles. If someone else started a business and succeeded why couldn’t I? I certainly wasn’t going anywhere sitting in an office and just wishing it was so.
One day as I paged through the new business section, I spotted a piece about a modeling agency that had just opened in Minneapolis. It said they represented adults, children and most importantly to me, animals.
Animals as models. That was something that I had never thought of. I have a dog, I mused. She is relatively well trained and of course, really cute. She could be a model.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number. A young voice answered and I said, “Hi. I am Barbara O’Brien and I have a dog that could be a model.” “Ok,” the voice said. “Send us a picture and we will call you if something comes up.” I thanked her and hung up as I leaned back in my chair.
I sat there a moment and then suddenly it occurred to me, I know lots of animals. Through my years of showing in 4H, my stint at the Humane Society and selling my animal art, I had developed a list of animal people contacts. I knew where everybody was and if I didn’t, I knew how to find them.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number again.
“Hello, it’s Barbara O’Brien again. I was the one with the Airedale. I was just thinking. I know lots of animals. I can help you find whatever your clients need.”
There was a pause and then the voice said. “Ok, why don’t you give me your number?”
A few days later there was a message on the answering machine from Sue Wehamn, the owner. She was wondering if I could provide a kitten for a photo shoot the next day. I called her back and told her I could. She told me the studio’s name and the time they needed me and when it was all done, I thought to myself, I just booked my first assignment.
I called a friend of mine that worked at a vet and asked her if she knew of any kittens. She did and put me in touch with the owner. I called the owner and asked her if she would like to bring her kitten to Minneapolis for a photo shoot. She agreed even though she didn’t know me, but she knew my friend and that was good enough for her.
Since I was still working for the construction company, I couldn’t go to the studio myself but from all accounts the kitten performed beautifully and soon was on the package of Purina Tender Vittles Cat Food.
A few weeks after the kitten shoot the agency called and wanted to know if I could get my hands on a bunch of rabbits for a major department store chain called Daytons.
I quickly located seven white rabbits and sent the owner to the shoot. The session went well and, as agreed, the agency sent me a small finder’s fee for my efforts.   This was really cool but still not enough to live on. It was then I decided I should run my own animal modeling agency.

“To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad.”

I called Sue and asked her how she felt about me starting my own agency just for animals and she said, sure. She was focusing on people and didn’t really want to bother with animals anyway.
Now that I had Sue’s blessings I figured there was only more thing I needed before I could start my business—a name.
To this day, whenever I am stumped by a business problem, I ask the smartest man I know—my Dad.
I told him about my plans and that I had booked a few first shoots already and what should I name my company. He smiled and said, “Start it with an A. You will be first in the phone book.”

I laughed at first but the thought, why not? And it only made sense to have the word animal in the name. My job was to bring people and animals together and that is how, in 1984, the Animal Connection was born.

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