One night about two and a half years ago, Max Sutter was a drunk, depressed University of Texas student thinking of a way to get his ex-girlfriend Ofelia back.
Her mixed-breed pooch, Baby, was getting up there in years. Sitting in his house, the inebriated Max, ever the entrepreneur, was thinking of a way to replace Baby postmortem with the same mix of dog. His brainstorm: create a nationwide pet database from the 6,500 American animal shelters. That way, he'd be bound to find a duplicate Baby -- one that might bring his girlfriend back.
Okay, so he was intoxicated. Still, the idea stuck, and about a year later he reserved the Web address www.petadoptions.com for $70. Since then, he says, he has invested considerably more money in the project.
A limited site is scheduled to finally become reality this week. Adorned with a bright blue paw and the mantra "Bringing People and Pets Together," it is designed to enable Web page visitors to search for a pet or shelter. There are links to shelters and pet-related services, such as volunteer opportunities, pet lawyers, animal rescue groups, breeders and even pet agents.
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Sutter, 25, says he and a staff of about five will work out of a Galleria-area office, contacting shelters to offer the database for free. Shelters log on and enter details about animals up for adoption. It will be financed by business ads with varied rates. A firm basically buys a contract for about $5,500 a month; the price increases if the site gets a certain number of hits. Sutter hopes to break even within nine months of the launch.
If it sounds like a great deal on all fronts -- shelters, pet lovers and business profits -- there are ample questions about Sutter's ability to make it work.
No one has achieved a commercial Internet pet billboard on such a grand scale: Sutter wants all U.S. shelters to eventually interact with one another at the click of a mouse.
Then there are the competitors. Other commercial sites, one of them backed by the industry giant Petsmart Inc., are up or are on the way to linking various shelters and available animals. In all likelihood, Sutter will be just joining the pack.
And many shelters survive on modest budgets without powerful Internet-friendly computers, or, like the Houston Humane Society, they simply don't have computers with modems.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Houston declined Sutter's offer. Martin Acuna, SPCA computer systems director, says the group ran into problems when it tried a similar venture earlier. The Internet adoption site didn't give the SPCA total control of its content, and the venture was advertiser-driven, an ethos issue for the nonprofit SPCA. Its shelter, which handles about 40,000 animals a year, plans to post pets on its Web site, www.houstonspca.org, within a year.
Sutter was formerly a volunteer at the Citizens for Animal Protection. That group has some pets listed on its Web site (www.hal-pc.org/~cap4pets) and will not appear on Sutter's page.
The national scope could provide a wide variety of animals, but logistics could complicate actual adoptions. For example, a Houstonian could browse the site and want a pet that turns out to be sheltered in New York. Transportation costs and related fees could run more than $250. On top of that, many shelters will not release animals for adoption unless they can meet potential owners and verify they are suited to caring for the animal.
Sutter remains optimistic. He says ten shelters have signed on and about 50 more will soon follow. He would like to have 1,000 on-line within a year.
Fort Worth's Metro Port Humane Society is one Sutter enlistee. Director Janice Flynn says the organization already uses two similar out-of-state services. "We can't have too many outlets for our animals."
Sutter believes more animals can be processed by shelter workers and more people can have access to information about Mittens, or Rover, or Mr. Ed -- the site will include horses. He says he wants his technology skills to help save animals from being euthanized. "I just don't like them being put to sleep. It sucks."
Although the Web site seeks donations, he says he has adequate financial backing, courtesy of The Sutter Family Foundation. The local nonprofit is geared toward pet assistance and is supported by his family. His father was a successful real estate broker, and his mother is a commercial printer. Sutter worked in oil and gas industry data management during and after college.
"All I really care about is finding loving homes for animals. We think of pets as little people with fur," he says. "Even if my company didn't make any money out of this, it's a great world experience."
At least Sutter and Ofelia are back together. And the inspiration for the Web site, Ofelia's dog Baby, is still very much alive.
E-mail Seth Landau at firstname.lastname@example.org.