It is 7 a.m., and already the phone has rung half a dozen times. As she has done each and every time before, Sharon Fleder shoots me an apologetic look and grabs the receiver.
“Sharon Fleder!” she chirps. “Oh, hey, Ron, how aaaaaare you?” But her cheery tone quickly gives way to chilly professionalism. “You’re getting ready to run with what? Excuse me?” A pause. A pause. “Look, I don’t even know how to respond to that, other than to say that it is categorically false, and it is libelous.” Pause. “Mmm hmmm. Okay. Listen, I have someone in my office right now. Let me make some calls and get back to you. When’s your deadline? Okay. I’ll call you by three.”
She hangs up the phone and sighs. “So, apparently, National Geographic is preparing a story claiming that there’s been another round of mountain-lion attacks in Africa. National Geographic is claiming that the lions are preying on humans. I have another theory.”
Of course she does. The mountain lions pay Fleder $3,000 per month to have another theory. Fleder collects a similar sum from over 100 other species, making hers one of the premier boutique firms in animal publicity. With a full-time staff of 18, Sharon Fleder Associates is tiny compared to a powerhouse like Pawprint Publicity, which employs over 150 staffers and represents most of the major breeds of dogs and cats. But SFA has carved out a special niche for itself: It has become known as the PR firm of choice for “troubled” clients. When the words “bovine spongiform” were on everyone’s lips, the cows hired Fleder. When lyme disease was terrifying campers, the deer gave Fleder the nod. And whenever a Rottweiler bites a child—or, as Fleder prefers to put it, “gets a little frisky”—it is Fleder who becomes the dog’s spokeswoman.
Fleder’s great gift is that she seems to entirely believe whatever she happens to be saying; this is a rare skill, and it has generated an enormous demand for her services. Even by her competitors’ estimates, she turns away two species for every one that she chooses to represent. Her roster currently includes ferrets, leeches, grizzly bears, jackals, otters, sharks, hyenas and, yes, mountain lions. Speaking of whom, what is Fleder’s theory on the attacks?
She sighs. “This story comes around every couple of years,” she says, “And every time, I have to go through the same routine: Mountain lions don’t attack people if they’re not provoked. But you have to be really careful in making that argument, since it can sound an awful lot like you’re blaming the kids for getting themselves hurt. The formulation we like to use is, the children are victims here, but so are the mountain lions. By the end of the day, we’ll issue a statement that contains a strong denial, and probably have some sort of contribution made to a large national charity. Hopefully the magazine will back off.”
And if they don’t?
“Well, let’s just say that they’d better not plan on getting any of my clients in the foreseeable future. I happen to know that they were hoping to do a spread on sharks in their December issue, and that Ranger Rick is preparing a cover story on hyenas. If they want to subject my clients to such malicious slander, they can kiss both of those stories goodbye.”
Fleder does have a certain amount of leverage: While her client list is comparatively small, it contains many of the “hot” animals that nature magazines and cable channels rely on to draw readers and viewers. As one of Fleder’s competitors puts it, “the Discovery Channel is so dependent on Shark Week that they let Sharon program half their fucking schedule for them.” And many of Fleder’s competitors point to the network’s recent week-long “Festival of Ferrets” as evidence of her power. Counters Fleder, “The notion that Discovery would allow me any sort of editorial jurisdiction is absurd… I simply put my clients before them, and they make their own decisions based on the merits.” (In the week since this interview took place, Fleder has called eleven times to attempt to persuade us not to print her competitors’ allegations. “It’s been asked and answered,” she said. “Why are you allowing an anonymous source to discredit what it has taken us seventeen years to build?” As this story went to press, an SFA representative called to inform us that a long-promised photo shoot featuring otters has been cancelled “due to scheduling conflicts.”)
However much animus her competitors bear toward Fleder, she returns it in spades. Asked about Pawprint Publicity, she scoffs. “Frankly,” she says, “our job is a hell of a lot more challenging than theirs. They may have a lot of clients, but they’re pretty easy to promote. You call Cat Fancy or Dog Fancy, you let them know which of your clients are available for a cover shoot: BOOM! You’ve just earned yourself a month’s retainer. It’s not like my job, where I’m constantly having to deny rumors, or to make people aware of the good things that my clients do. Did you know that, just last week, a shark rescued a whole family from a burning houseboat?”
I shake my head no.
“You see? I’ve been calling every paper, every day, trying to get them to report that, and none of them want to hear about it. But if it were a tabby cat that rescued that family, it would have been page one of the New York Post.”
As hard as she works for her clients, Fleder’s support is not unconditional. Asked to name her least favorite client, she responds without hesitation, “The dingoes. They refused to be coached on anything—they’d show up for a photo shoot hours late, having just rolled in carrion. I’d say to them, `Guys, people are saying you ate a baby. Could you please try to look, you know, dignified?’ And they just wouldn’t listen. I mean, I was out there doing everything I could, and they just wouldn’t cooperate. Also, they never paid me. In any case, you’ll notice that, three weeks after I walked off, public opinion turned against the dingoes. I’ll tell you this much: That Meryl Streep movie never would have been made if those animals had done what I told them to—” The phone rings.
“Hey, Steve. How aaaaaare you?” A pause. “You’re claiming what? Listen, how many times do I have to tell you: They do not eat their own feces. That is a myth.” She looks at me, smiles, then frowns. “You have it on videotape? How did you get that? Look, just because one of them, once, ate some feces, doesn’t mean—How many did you tape? Jesus, what were you doing, stalking them? Look, could you hang on for just a minute?” She looks at me. “I’m sorry. I really need to go. The animals need me.”