After all the sadness and grieving of the last few weeks, I finally have some exciting news that I feel ready to share with all of you! You'll never guess what happened the day before I went to New Zealand 🤭🙈 . A few days earlier, I received a message from a girl via Instagram. I could tell she was very emotional and afraid to ask what she was about to ask. She told me that she had very extreme allergic reactions to her hedgehog. Every time she would handle him, her eyes would get very red and swollen just like her entire arms. It even got to the point where she wasn’t able to breathe and would have to see a doctor. I had never heard of such extreme reactions and felt so bad for her. I mean, imagine how awful it must be not to be able to handle your own pet? 🥺💔 . Then she gathered all her strength and asked me if I knew someone who would take care of him. I immediately went through an imaginary list of people who would consider rescuing the little guy, because I didn’t know if I was ready for another hedgehog so soon. Let alone the fact that I was almost on my way to New Zealand 🤔 . However, I really wanted to help her, so I intuitively called my best friend to ask her if she would take him in for the time I was away (she said yes). I knew I would figure out the rest afterwards. So, the day before I left, the girl dropped off the little guy. The situation was heartbreaking, because I could see how much she loved him and how hard this was for her. And yet, she found the strength to do what was best for him. I promised her I would make sure he would have the best possible life 😔❤️ . When she had left I took him out of his little box and - you guys won’t believe this - but I thought I was looking straight into Pokee’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t look so much alike and have very different personalities. But there was something about his eyes that gave me a really warm feeling. In that very moment I knew what I had to do. I knew that this hedgehog had found me. I mean, look at the entire story and tell me this wasn’t in some way meant to be 🥺🥰
Almost immediately, Herbee, along with his new sister, a Bengal cat named Audree, took up Pokee’s mantle as “World’s Cutest Adventurer.” In a feed characterized by natural settings and sunny, high-contrast light filters, Herbee could be found posing alongside a watermelon umbrella, a lemon slice, a corona of avocados. He relaxed in a hollowed-out pineapple and sniffed around a patch of daisies while wearing a tiny sombrero. He reclined in Girnus’ palm in front of an Alpine meadow, comically splaying his legs and wearing a goofy, effervescent smile, like Pokee would have done. The seamlessness of the transition from Pokee to Herbee put me, a Pokee devotee, at unease.
Part of it was the fact that I couldn’t tell Pokee and Herbee apart: When asked by a follower how they should distinguish between the two hedgehogs, Girnus replied, “When you see my [“Pokee” wrist] tattoo you always know it’s Herbee; I got it after Pokee passed away.” (Not really helpful when one is idly thumbing through the feed.) Her sentimental captions flowed freely, the lamentations of a pet owner attempting to process her grief in real time. But her perfectly curated photos of Herbee and Audree told a different story: an unbroken chain, a lasting digital utopia unstained by heartbreak.
Mr. Pokee is not alone, and neither is Girnus. Pets inevitably die, and the owners of Instagram-famous ones are inevitably faced with the complicated decision of how to carry on with their account. Losing a pet is devastating enough, but the death of an influencer like Pokee is compounded by the fact that owners often rely on that account for a vital source of their income. “Usually, if someone dies, you’re obviously very hurt and sad. If you lose your job or income, that feels shitty too,” said Loni Edwards, founder and CEO of The Dog Agency, which specializes in pet influencers. “But having them both tied into this same thing, also potentially losing that huge network and community that you’ve built, I can’t think of anything else that comes close to that awful feeling.”
“I never thought about the moment that Pokee would pass away, because in my mind, he was like a unicorn who would live forever.”
Edwards estimated that an Instagram account with 1,000,000 followers can expect to earn $10,000 to $15,000 from a single post. Dorie Herman, who runs the Kardoggians, a family of elderly Chihuahuas with 161,000 Instagram followers, told me that dogfluencer earnings supplement her primary income as a graphic designer and generate only enough money enough to offset medical expenses. “[The Kardoggians were] never my ticket to riches and fame,” she said. Meanwhile, Girnus, whose account has 10 times as many followers as Herman’s, quit her consulting job to run @mr.pokee full-time, two months before Pokee’s death. “I never thought about the moment that Pokee would pass away, because in my mind, he was like a unicorn who would live forever,” she told me. “And I didn’t think about what would happen if he died.”
I have, perhaps cynically, thought of owners of pet influencers as puppeteers who dangle their pets in front of fawning audiences. But everyone I spoke to emphasized the importance of their own human connection to their followers in helping them process their pet’s death and encouraging them to continue with their account. Edwards turned to her followers for comfort after her French bulldog Chloe died at age 4 from veterinary negligence in 2017. “Obviously they care about your pet, but you have this connection to them,” she told me. “To ostracize yourself from that community is a really weird thing that makes you feel kind of alone. [When Chloe died], people would DM me that they were crying about as much as I was. Having that support system was so powerful.”
Herman echoed this sentiment. “Everyone should be so lucky as to have a dog who is famous on Instagram pass away. People check in on you. They love them as much as you do, and they want to continue hearing about them.”
No two accounts operate the same in the wake of death. When Colonel Meow, one of Instagram’s first pet influencers, died in 2014, his owner got a new cat named Papa Puffpants and rebranded as Colonel Meow and Friends. The owner of another hedgehog, Biddy, deactivated an account with over 600,000 followers after the animal died in 2015. Other accounts carry on as memorials, like the legendary Grumpy Cat. Edwards maintains Chloe’s account to raise awareness for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy group working to protect pets and wildlife under the law.
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I had to put #TheBrawd down yesterday at 18 years old. I don’t even know how to explain my love for her.💞 She’s been with me through hell and back and the most steady out of all my animals. She was feral so surviving is in her nature. 💪🏽 But when she became vulnerable I felt so honored and full of pride to be chosen. 🥰 She snuggled me every night, always followed me around waiting for me to sit so she could jump in my lap, and if she heard me crying would appear out of thin air as if she knew her duty was calling. And I’ve cried A LOT since moving to LA. 😂 Lets just say she had her work cut out for her. But you did it, Bellies, you nurtured the hell outta me. The Brawd had a few homes before staying with me. And when my ex decided not to take her I vowed that I would never give her away again. I think in return she was INCREDIBLY loyal. Stopped hissing or biting me. Didn’t hide as much. Idk, something shifted, and I’m so grateful it did cuz she’s going down as one of the all time greats in my book.🇺🇸 I love you, Bellies! You were such a lady and didn’t take no shit! AN INSPIRATION TO US ALL! #TheBrawd #QueenB #RIP #RestingBitchFaceForLyfe #LoveYouFurrever @crazyavey
Several owners of pet influencers, including Mr. Pokee, have built pet families to to ensure the continuity and longevity of their accounts, to financially (and maybe even emotionally) mitigate the death of a pet. Harlow and Sage, which sounds like a farm-to-table restaurant, has grown to four dogs since the death of Sage, a miniature Dachshund, in 2013. The Kardoggians began with one dog, the derpy Chloe Kardoggian, before adding Kimchi and Cupid to the mix. Wolfgang2242 owner Steve Greig maintains a roster of nine senior dogs (currently led by Eeyore, a 19-year-old Chihuahua) and also counts a pig, a turkey, two rabbits, two ducks, and four chickens as members of his flock.
In captions, Girnus frames @mr.pokee as a kind of wellness brand that aims to bring joy to the world, beyond the specific merits of any one hedgehog. She recently hosted sponsored posts from Kapten & Son, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of backpacks, watches, and other “global lifestyle accessories,” and she sells “World’s Cutest Adventurers” calendars ($17), a holiday postcard set ($11), and a custom Instagram filter package ($33) on her website. “Some of you have asked me if I will change my username or make a new page for Herbee,” she wrote in August. “The reason I will not do that is that it’s not about the hedgehog anymore. It’s about the story and the message ♡ Be happy and Smile ♡.”
To be clear, this is a lot. But my phone conversation with Girnus, as well as with other owners of pet influencers, assuaged my concern that Herbee’s inheritance of Pokee’s throne had been a bait-and-switch, rather than the organic outcome of a violent collision of love, business, and death, even if I find myself stubbornly loyal to the original.
Maybe Girnus’s many written tributes to Pokee fell victim to Instagram’s layout, which makes it easy to scroll past long columns of text. Maybe Instagram isn’t the best platform for mourning, anyways, and maybe my cynicism is misplaced; it’s just animals, after all, who are pure and whose pictures promise nothing more than an instantaneous, reliable tug at the heartstrings.
After Pokee died, Girnus packed a plush Pokee doll and a heart-shaped necklace filled with his quills and traveled alone to New Zealand, to clear her head and decide what to do with her account. She thought back to the day when she made her first ever Pokee post, in June 2015, after she found him nestled in an empty tissue box. “It made me so happy to share that story and to read all the responses. People told me, ‘oh it made me so happy,’” she told me. “And it made me happy to read that it made them happy. That’s what made me decide to keep going with the page.”