“We didn’t wake up one day and say let’s get in the dog treat business.” Veni Harlan ’77
Sometimes life takes you in unexpected places. For Veni Harlan and her family, this has certainly been the case. The Harlan siblings, including Veni, Hansel ’83 and Gretel ’89 have developed a one of a kind dog treat that also has the potential to save Louisiana’s wetlands.
Marsh Dog is an all-natural, eco-sustainable, Louisiana Certified dog treat made from wild nutria. Yes, the orange-toothed mammal you’ve likely seen gnawing on vegetation in the swamp. Who knew these native beasts would be a delicacy for dogs across the country?
The Harlan family loves animals. As in, fostered-more-than-100-birds-after-Hurricane-Katrina, loves animals. Veni remembers cages and cages of everything from parrots to parakeets being delivered to her mom’s home after the storm. In fact, Veni still has one of the birds even now. Veni also has five dogs who are like members of the family. She and her siblings have long made their own dog food, so it wasn’t really a stretch for them to create dog treats, even if the main ingredient was a little unusual. Veni says inspiration came from Hansel who was familiar with nutria having studied in South America. When a state-organized, multi-million dollar campaign to promote wild nutria for the human market failed, Hansel mused that use of wild nutria would be the ultimate eco-sustainable protein source for dogs.
With their imaginations sparked, Veni and Hansel got to work. They submitted a business plan and grant application to the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and were awarded a small mini-grant. “Our goal was to go out of business!” Veni remembers saying.
The Harlans started with a biscuit concept in Hansel’s kitchen. Veni says all of the ingredients were sourced from Louisiana. They did everything by hand, grinding the sweet potatoes, cooking the rice, and hand-cutting biscuits. The Harlan family had plenty of canine taste testers to approve their creation. They weren’t at all certain their concept would be embraced by dog owners but to their delight, people embraced the idea. More importantly, dogs loved the treats.
Demand was such that they soon realized they needed to scale production. Hansel and Veni invited their sister Gretel Harlan Kelly to join the team and along with husband Bob, the two brought an essential financial perspective. Once a major manufacturer was selected, new recipes had to be developed. The Harlans conducted extensive research calling on state and federal agencies as well as AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control) for guidance. Every ingredient was carefully chosen for quality, sustainability and environmental impact. It was also important to the Harlans that all ingredient sourcing, manufacturing and packaging was exclusively USA. The second generation of Marsh Dog treats were accepted into the Louisiana Certified product program and available nationwide in July of 2019.
Local and national media picked up the unique entrepreneurial story helping the Harlans spread the word nationwide. Within a few months, dog owners and retailers across the country were placing orders for Marsh Dog. “We like to think our products are part of an awareness campaign that tastes good and does good,” says Veni.
The products and mission of Marsh Dog have been heralded by conservationists across the country. Recognition from the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary are helpful in reaching the product’s audience. “We probably have the most unique partners in the pet food industry,” Veni says. We table with multiple environmental groups like the Tulane Environmental Law Summit, the LSU School of Veterinary Science, as well as support organizations that train dogs to sniff out invasive species, area welfare groups, law and service entities like Louisiana Search and Rescue and Louisiana Warriors Unleashed which employ dogs to help veterans.
A big part of Marsh Dog’s mission is education about nutria, wetlands and environmental stewardship. “Louisiana wetlands are an invaluable asset to the entire country,” says Veni, who points out the role of wetlands in carbon sequestering, a $3.5 billion seafood industry, habitat for endangered and migratory fauna, flood aid, storm surge, recreation and strategic energy and port services. “80% of US coastal land loss occurs in Louisiana. Nutria are just one of the challenges,” she says. Scientists estimate current coastal loss at the rate of one football field every hour. “If we were losing the Smoky Mountains at the same rate there would be a worldwide uproar,” says Veni.
The Harlans are hopeful and proud of the work being done to save the wetlands and the part that Marsh Dog is playing. “We can’t control hurricanes and oil spills but we can each do something,” says Veni. “We believe employing man’s best friend is fun and easy. A dog goes from being an ordinary pet to a Canine Conservationist!”
The Marsh Dog experience has been quite educational for the Harlans. “The joy of Marsh Dog is that we’re always learning something and meeting amazing people working for the environment,” says Veni. Veni also enjoyed learning during her time at Episcopal. She joined her siblings on Woodland Ridge for her senior year of school. This adventurer says she was scared, but curious about transferring to a new school. In the end, she says Episcopal “enriched her life in a really fabulous way.” She made lifelong friends with many people like Betsy Harper, Jeanie Frey, Susan Phillips and others who literally took her under their wings. “Episcopal did change my life because of the people I met,” Veni says. “I gained a greater appreciation for academics.” Veni went on to LSU and has enjoyed a successful career in graphic design, fine arts and teaching. Hansel earned a law degree at LSU and operates his own practice in Baton Rouge. Gretel is also an LSU graduate and resides in Dallas with her family.
Everyone in the extended Harlan family was recruited at some point by Marsh Dog and deserves proper credit for their contributions, including mom, Suzanne Danna Harlan, Gretel’s husband Bob, sibling Jeff ’87 and his children Chuck ’14, Isabella ’16 and Alexander, a current Episcopal senior.
Congratulations, Harlans! Your story is proof that everyone can have an impact.