by Anna Andersen
Photography by Nicole Mlakar
When Alex Hopes moved to Austin in 2012, it was on a whim. He had never visited, he didn’t have a job lined up, he didn’t know anybody who lived here, and he spent the first couple weeks crashing on a couch that belonged to a friend of a friend. Five years later, as we walk around Zilker Park, it’s difficult to imagine that Hopes was ever an unfamiliar face. Everyone seems to know who he is or has at least heard of Zilker Bark, the wildly popular Instagram account that he manages.
But the story behind Zilker Bark begins in Omaha, Nebraska, before Hopes moved to Austin, when he adopted a six-week-old beagle-mix he calls Sid. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gotten Sid, and it was total happenstance,” Hopes says. “Somebody messaged me one day in Omaha and was like, ‘Hey, I know you’re looking for a dog. I have a dog at my work. Somebody can’t keep him because of a lease.’”
Although Hopes says he wasn’t looking for a dog, he wound up taking him home that day for fifty bucks. As pet owners do, Hopes quickly began documenting everything Sid did and, in the process, discovered a love for photography. “I had a live model to practice on that wouldn’t say no and wouldn’t tell me I was taking bad pictures,” Hopes says, “and he’s really good at posing for a treat, which made it really easy for me.”
All that practice came in handy when Hopes grew tired of waiting tables at Bess Bistro, the first job he took after making his move to Austin. “I felt like I wasn’t pushing myself, so I quit my job, bought a camera I couldn’t afford, and put myself in a situation where I would either fail or I would figure it out,” Hopes says. “I wouldn’t have called myself a photographer at that point, but I was decent at it, and I was also good with social media, so I started a business where I could pair the two.”
With his business doing well in 2014, Hopes made plans to move to Croatia, where he figured he could continue to do the same kind of work.
Before Hopes shifted his focus to Zilker Bark, he says he always imagined using Sid’s fame to bring attention to good causes. “My thought was to have Sid be the face of dogs in Austin so that I could use his brand to bring attention to nonprofit efforts,” Hopes says, “and that’s pretty much what I’ve done with Zilker Bark.”
For past two years, Hopes has raised money for Austin Pets Alive through his annual Valentine’s Day photo shoot in front of the I Love You So Much mural at Jo’s Coffee. This year, he photographed nine dogs every ten minutes, raising $9,000 in three hours. For the first time, this year, he also put on a benefit event at Zilker Park called 10k for APA, raising another $10,000 in 12 hours.
Still, Hopes dreams of doing more. One day, for example, he would like Sid, as Dog Mayor, to shut down the streets of Austin and lead a dog march for charity. “It would be like the Gorilla Run, but with all these dogs in these cute little costumes,” he says, smiling at the thought of it. “So that’s the direction I’d like to go in, to one day be hosting an event in which dogs in costumes are marching through the city, raising money for charity.”
“I thought, I’m going to move to the most beautiful place in the world and do this,” he says. “Croatia has a super low cost of living, and I found a two-bedroom place for like 200 dollars a month. There were a lot of reasons why it made sense.”
“He’s the dog I shouldn’t have gotten, but I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
But none of it panned out. The day Hopes sold nearly everything he owned and loaded his car up with his remaining belongings, Sid was hit by a car. “It was the most traumatic thing ever,” Hopes says. “I found him in the middle of the road. He had released his bowels. He was bleeding out of his mouth, and he couldn’t move.”
A stranger pulled over and offered to drive them to an emergency hospital where Sid went on to have two major surgeries. He had four fractured ribs, a punctured lung, a herniated diaphragm, and his spleen was sliced in half.
To raise money for the medical bills, Hopes started a GoFundMe campaign and Sid’s followers raised 10,000 dollars for him in two days. Remarkably, Sid recovered and was back to his old self in a couple of weeks.
At that point, as they no longer had a place to live, Hopes decided to hit the road, and the two of them drove 15,000 miles around the country for eight months, living out of his car and camping when they could.
“When we got back to Austin,” Hopes says, “I had burned through every penny that I had saved for my trip. I was starting back up again, so I decided to put on an art show with the photos from my trip and I published a children’s book about Sid, called Sidventures. Well, three or four days before the show, Sid went viral for his pizza dog video. The book sold out immediately, and he got all sorts of publicity.”
Coincidentally, that was about the time that Hopes started Zilker Bark. “I had built Sid’s Instagram following and I enjoyed doing it,” he says, “but I was starting to burn out of content. Creating concepts for one dog is a lot of work, especially when it’s only valued for six to ten hours. So I thought, ‘I love photography, and I love taking photos of dogs. I’ll take photos of dogs at Zilker Park.’”
After eight months of coming out to Zilker Park, he asked his girlfriend, “Do you think anyone would pay for dog sessions?” Although he was skeptical, his girlfriend was confident that people would do it. And, she was right.
Since Hopes did his first session in December 2015, he’s done 450 sessions, and he currently has 100 dogs on a waitlist, unable to keep up with the demand. After all, he also spends 25 to 30 hours at Zilker Park each week, taking photos of dogs for his Zilker Bark Instagram account, which has more than 82K followers at this point.
“It’s been amazing to be part of this community, getting to know all the people and their dogs. I don’t know all of the people’s names, but I can tell you most of the dogs’ names,” Hopes says.
Sid, better known as Sid the Pizza Dog, held a slice of pizza in his mouth for the duration of a four-second video that broke the internet in 2015. His social media following grew exponentially, he starred in a Domino’s commercial, and Miley Cyrus even photoshopped a picture of herself riding the hotdog that he held in his mouth for another food-related stunt.
Wanting to put his newfound celebrity status to good use, the basset-beagle-corgi-lab mix decided later that year to run for Dog Mayor of Austin. Although he ran unopposed and there was never an official election, he had an appropriate suit made for the occasion and someone from the (human) Mayor’s Office sent him a letter stating that Mayor Steve Adler wanted to recognize him.
Sid hasn’t been in any more contact with his human counterpart, but in his new role he has since been asked to make a variety of mayoral appearances. He’s thrown out the first pitch for The Round Rock Express, he’s dropped the puck for the Texas Stars, and he’s going to do some work for the PGA tour in Austin later this month.
But, of course, he still spends most afternoons at Zilker Park, being sure to stay connected to his local community, interacting with other dogs and sharing a picnic with anybody who is willing.
In case you would like to reach Sid and request an appearance, his email address is email@example.com. As he’s more social media savvy than your average mayor, you might also follow him on Instagram (@myregalbeagle) and Facebook (facebook.com/myregalbeagle).
“Sometimes, I just sit back and I think, God, it’s so crazy how this came to be. You know, I was constantly living in Sid’s shadow because he was internet famous and I was known as the guy with the famous dog. But now Zilker Bark has become its own thing.”
And, almost on cue, a group of star-struck fans make their way over to him and ask, “Is that your dog? Are you Zilker Bark? Do you get to do this for a living?” He nods his head, smiles, and says yes, yes he does.
“You know, when I first moved to Austin, I came to Zilker and it blew my mind,” Hopes says, just before we part ways. “I had no idea that something this beautiful and open existed. There were people playing games and there were people with dogs. It was my personality in a nutshell—being outside, being active, playing with dogs. And, in a city that has eighty percent sunny days? It just validated my move to Austin.”
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | April 2017