Carol Gardner parlays pooch's soulful mug into prosperity

Zelda has all the attributes of a good friend: She listens Ñ or appears to Ñ she offers words of wisdom and she's much worse off than you are.

Carol Gardner, Zelda's owner and the creator of Zelda Wisdom greeting cards, books and other products, credits these traits for making the bulldog the poster child for self-acceptance.

'People love Zelda because she's very happy with who she is,' Gardner says of the poker-faced pooch who dons a variety of whimsical costumes to convey a wide range of sentiments. 'I mean, look at her: She was born with an underbite, a triple chin and bloodshot eyes. There's nowhere to go but up.'

When she's not inking licensing deals for Zelda-related products, Gardner travels the country telling Zelda's story. 'I talk about how to go from underdog to top dog without barking up the wrong tree,' she says.

The secret to Zelda's appeal, Gardner says, is her humanlike mug. 'Most dogs tend to have a long, pointy face. But the face of the bulldog is very similar to ours, and I think that similarity has made the whole concept work. People don't think of Zelda as a dog, they think of Zelda as them. She's nonthreatening and captures their inner soul.'

What's more, Gardner insists that Zelda has more to offer than Fay Ray and Man Ray, the Weimaraners made famous in the anthropomorphic poses taken by photographer William Wegman.

'We're beyond Wegman,' says Gardner, 59, who lives in Northwest Portland. 'He just takes pictures. Zelda has wisdom to offer, too, and that puts her in a different league.'

A fur-covered canvas

Hitting bottom in her own life provided Gardner with the impetus to help others change theirs.

'Eight years ago, I was going through a terrible divorce that left me in debt and really pulled the rug out from under me emotionally,' she recalls. 'A friend said, 'You can either get a therapist or you can get a dog.' So I got Zelda.'

Formerly a creative director for prominent advertising agencies in New York and San Francisco, Gardner soon realized that her future lay at her feet.

'When you're desperate, you take stock,' she says. 'I looked at Zelda, who was my only possession at the time, and saw that she was a canvas that people could relate to and weren't threatened by. She was a way to convey wisdom in a humorous way.'

Melissa Taylor, manager of Mark's Hallmark at Peterkort Center on Southwest Barnes Road, agrees with that assessment.

'Our customers love Zelda cards because they're a lighthearted response to everyday situations, from heartbreak to just having a bad day,' she says of the line that bears the slogan: 'Tough but tender, sweet but strong.'

A sure sign of success: Zelda's numerous photo shoots have generated humorous outtakes. Gardner's sixth book, 'Zelda's Bloopers,' is due out soon and joins other tomes of wisdom, such as 'The Zen of Zelda' (in which she offers spiritual guidance as the Doggy Lama), 'Zelda's Survival Guide' and 'Zelda Rules on Love.'

Doggy doodads

In addition to the 82 cards in the first rollout, Hallmark also offers Zelda-related trinkets such as figurines, snow globes and plaques. A major stuffed animal manufacturer soon will offer Zelda plush toys worldwide, and those who wish to wear their love of Zelda on their sleeve can soon do so: A line of Zelda clothing for children and adults is in the works, with doggy apparel not far behind.

But where there are hot products there are imitators.

Zelda's lawyer Ñ who also represents 'Dilbert' cartoonist Scott Adams Ñ has his hands full cracking down on counterfeit Zelda merchandise.

'We've discovered fake Zelda T-shirts in Mississippi,' Gardner says. 'And then there were the purses and wallets that were made in China that we found in malls and on eBay.'

Of course, every star needs back-up talent, and Zelda is no exception. Gardner owns a pair of less-famous bulldogs, Zee Zee and Zoe, who act as Zelda's understudies and also appear in the books and cards. Gardner says that the furry duo also provide an important element of realism to the Zelda character.

'Most people have friends, so Zelda has friends, too.'

Gardner has yet another pet, Curtis the cat, who prefers life on her ranch in Central Oregon Ñ presumably out of his canine comrade's shadow.

'Zelda knows that she's the top dog around here; there's no room for competition,' Gardner says. 'She defines what it means to be a diva. '

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