When Laurel Lagoni received her Master’s degree in human development and family studies, she assumed she’d be working with, well, humans and families.
Now, as president and CEO of World by the Tail, Inc., Laurel Lagoni’s career revolves around cats, dogs, horses, and even 1,800 lb. grizzly bears.
Although Lagoni pursued a career in grief counseling, this is a niche she didn’t expect. She co-founded World by the Tail, which develops and distributes products to help owners cope with pet loss, primarily kits with clay paddies for vets to make impressions of pets’ paws.
Title: President and CEO, World by the Tail, Inc.
In the business for: 14 years
Graduated from: Iowa State University, Bachelor’s in journalism; Colorado State University (CSU), Master’s in human development and family studies
Previous jobs: Faculty member in human development at CSU; director of Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine at CSU
Based in: Fort Collins, Colorado
Salary: Around $70,000/year as a mental health professional at CSU; around $80,000 to $90,000/year (plus profits) at World by the Tail
What inspired you to start your own business? The administration at the university changed, and I was asked to explain my program and prove myself. It felt like the right time to leave academia, so I started doing the same thing I’d always done – but in a business setting. That’s where World by the Tail came from.
Basis of World by the Tail: We package and sell ClayPaws kits to veterinarians, which they make for clients whose pets are dying. It’s a memento of their pet to express passion and understanding – a little memorial keepsake. Vets buy them in quantity, like 500 at a time.
Price per clay paw: About $5 or $6, but we offer quantity discounts.
Can the kits be used for any animal? Yes. Rabbit, dog, or even horse hoofprints.
How did you transition from human development to helping pets? I had just joined the faculty of CSU’s human development department, and the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital was starting an animal cancer treatment center. A vet called our department and asked for someone to help set up a clinical department to help emotional pet owners say goodbye to their pets. I jumped at the opportunity.
What’s one “goodbye ceremony” you’ll never forget? Bart the Bear, a grizzly bear who weighed 1,800 pounds and had appeared in various movies. His trainer brought him to the vet school because of a cancerous tumor on his paw [which he ultimately died from]. In order to take a clay paw print, we put 25 pounds of clay in an aluminum turkey pan, fit his paw in for a print, and then baked the clay for three hours. We made several copies, so I have the same paw print in my office now.
Bart the Bear appeared in Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt. Watch Brad Pitt meet the grizzly for the first time:
Origin of the name “World by the Tail”: I was listening to a folk song by Shawn Colvin, and one of the lines was, “I’m swinging the world by the tail.” I proposed it to my business partners, and they liked it.
How many pets do you own now? Two dogs – a Chesapeake Bay retriever and a cockapoo – and two black cats.
Other pets over the years: Guinea pigs, and a crayfish from my daughter’s classroom that she wanted to keep. At one point, we had four dogs, but that was too many.
How do you cope with deaths of your own pets? ABC’s 20/20 filmed my family euthanizing our dog, who was dying from lymphoma. Afterward, I heard from so many people who thought it would be too frightening or sad to be with their animal during death, but [the 20/20 segment helped them realize] they could do it.
Cremation or backyard burial? We’ve cremated all of our dogs, because they’re bigger and harder to bury. But since we live in a rural neighborhood, we’ve buried our two cats, three guinea pigs, and the little crayfish in our front yard.
Most valuable lesson learned: I had a professor at CSU who told us to look for the gap – to look for what’s not being studied, what area is not being served. It’s the most valuable advice I ever got, because I knew that grief counseling for pet owners was that gap.
What’s your reaction to non-pet lovers who think your job is nutty? People depend on animals to make their lives better, to provide unconditional love and companionship. Research proves that pets help the elderly feel useful, and help teach self-esteem and responsibility to kids. So it’s not crazy to think that if we depend on them when they’re alive, we feel genuine grief when they die.
Tell me about the story you wrote for Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul. My co-director at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital [at CSU] had a client whose husband had died abruptly from electrocution. She brought in her dying horse, and found lots of dates in common between the horse and her husband. We worked with her to finish grieving her husband through saying goodbye to her horse. [Editor’s note: Lagoni is also the co-author of four books and more than 50 book chapters and journal articles.]
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Pursue at least a Master’s degree, plus additional training in grief areas like hospice training and crisis hotline training. It’s not enough to just want to help others; it takes a professional to give support. Grief is a very unpredictable emotion to deal with.
2. Don’t try to start a small business on your own. There are bound to be parts of the business you don’t like, which you’ll end up putting off, and the business will eventually fail because you can’t keep up. Find someone who complements your skills – who has a love and expertise in the areas you don’t.
3. Look into groups like the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB). Many different people from different walks of life belong to those associations, and you can learn a lot of information about pet loss support.
Do you love pets? Read more about pets on No Joe Schmo: Kat Albrecht is a cop-turned-pet detective!