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Feline behaviorist Jackson Galaxy didn’t set out to become the patron saint of conflicted cats. “I never wanted to do anything besides be a singer-songwriter,” says the tattooed, goateed, pierced guitar player. But one night, while working as an animal caretaker at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado, Galaxy single-handedly soothed dozens of screaming, anxious cats and realized that his life was meant to go in a different direction.
Today, his guitar case holds cat toys rather than a musical instrument. While continuing to consult with shelters, the star of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell calls on desperate owners in the Los Angeles area whose badly behaved pets are ruining their houses and relationships. Galaxy puts the misunderstood cats on the couch along with their owners, turning around seemingly hopeless situations and keeping families together. He details his personal history with one particular cat in his book, Cat Daddy: What the World’s Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean.
In this edited interview with The HSUS’s Arna Cohen, Galaxy talks about what makes him tick.
How did you get involved with cats?
The reason I started working at the animal shelter was simply I was sick of working for humans. I was working dead-end jobs, and I just wanted to do little bit of good and stop living such a self-centered life. I just figured working with animals and scooping some poop would be good for me, and would also allow me to pursue music at night, and that was that.
You were hired to be a caretaker?
Yes. You start at the bottom of the ladder at any animal shelter. It’s a great way to learn the workings of animal sheltering from the inside out. I advanced pretty quickly in the organization, but you have to have that ground under your feet before you start … for instance, within about a year I was the community outreach coordinator for the shelter, but unless you know what goes into the minute by minute of sheltering there’s no way you can go and take that message out to the public.
What made you realize that you had this insight into the cat thought process?
It’s kind of hard to describe. I just understood their body signals instinctually.
It’s a twisty path. I went to grad school for acting. Part of whether you’re an actor or a songwriter, your goal is taking everyday observations of people and turning them into art. One of the things you’re doing just by observing a cat, you’re saying, “What does this body posture mean in this time and space?” I think one of the things that helped me the most was that there wasn’t an established vocabulary of cat in the same way I think that there’s an established vocabulary for dogs. You can see a dog assume a play bow. You know exactly what that means. Cats? Not so much.
They seem to be a lot more subtle in what they’re communicating.
Not from cat to cat. They understand each other perfectly well. The thing about dogs is that we have a coevolution with these dogs for however many years they’ve been with us. They’ve been doing jobs for us. They’ve been, in essence, taken out of their natural place and taught to be more like us. That’s part of their evolution.
Cats don’t have that history. Cats’ history is more about being along for the ride because they did an instinctually good job of keeping [pests] under control. In that sense, we don’t have a natural grip on their communication. That’s one of those things that really motivated me.
To break it down, when I first started working at the shelter, I found we were euthanizing totally healthy cats because they were being deemed unadoptable in a totally crowded shelter. They were displaying fear behavior in the cages, meaning they were not eating, or doing things like putting their heads in the back of the cage. All it took was getting into an understanding place with that cat, that I can affect that behavior enough to get them to face the front of the cage. Then they would go home. It was that simple.
The stakes were really high. It wasn’t just, “I’d love to study cats.” It was, “Gee, this is one less cat that we have to kill because of something very basic.” It was classic necessity being the mother of invention.
I read how you calmed a roomful of upset cats by exchanging blinks with them. Would you call that your epiphany?
Yes, totally. For me that was a turning point. It was not the first time that I understood their language, but it was the first time that I understood that I could take a roomful of these cats and affect behavior on a large scale. There were like 45 cats in that room. It took me a few hours but we went from absolute hysteria to absolute quiet in a couple of hours, and that was with one person. Knowing that could happen was like finding my Rosetta stone. Everything I did at that moment was about reducing the number of dead cats in the shelter. And not just my shelter. That ’s what remains my motivating factor. That’s why that evening was so incredible to me, because it was a hard-working night but it was amazing. It was amazing to know that these guys just needed to be reassured.
My history of speaking engagements started in shelters when I talked to staff and foster parents. I would say, “Imagine what it feels like to be an animal whose absolute identity is predicated on ownership of territory. You’re in a 2-by-3 stainless steel cage. Your scent is washed out every day, and your ownership is robbed, by necessity—disease control—and everything is a potential threat. You can only smell dogs and cats, and you can’t see anything. Humans just come by, and everything is a threat. The fact that you can still keep your sh-t together is miraculous. What can we do from that point to increase confidence and make it so that when people see you, they see the best parts of you, so they can imagine you in their home?”
What other changes were you able to bring about?
Housing is one thing. We went from being a real rundown place. That place was ancient. The roof leaked, disease control was horrible. Part of my tenure there was helping to design and raise funds for a new state-of-the-art building. Just by chance, I was witness to the change in paradigm of cats in shelters, where we went from cats in cages to cats in group living. That is a massive change.
Were you doing your public consultations at that time?
The stars lined up purposely. I just happened to be working in a place where we were pretty progressive in our thinking. The recognition that we had someone on staff—me—who was speaking cat pretty fluently and affecting change, our CEO said, “Why would you not be going to people’s homes who’ve been calling us about bringing their cats in? Go to their house and get them to not do it, because we don’t want that cat to end up dead.” So I’d go to the house and stop the cat from coming in [to the shelter]. Or people would adopt and not know what they were getting into, and a week after adoption they’d want to return. I’d go their house, make very, very basic changes, and the cat would stay home.
You’re still associated with shelters in Los Angeles?
I’m associated with shelters wherever, but here for sure. I’m on the board of directors for Stray Cat Alliance in L.A. We do work in the feral cat population. I’ve worked with many shelters. The shelter system in L.A., especially the county shelters, is really in bad shape. I do what I can.
Sometimes just my presence, at this point, attendance at adoption events … it’s amazing. I just show up and because of the TV exposure, maybe more cats will go home. I can’t even get over that.
Then there’s trying to pass on the message. My message is shelter-based. Everything I do with cats is based on the experience I had over 10 years at the shelter. As we’re planning that book tour, I’ve said to the publisher, “If you want to put me in a Barnes & Noble, that’s fine, but I want make sure that at every stop we make, I get to go to a shelter and I get to do a Q&A and raise some money.” It’s nice for me to be able to stay with rescue and shelter. Staying in that realm keeps me grounded, because so many TV shows keep you anything but grounded.
So the book is about cat behavior?
In a way. When we were pitching the book, I said I ’m not writing Cat s for Dummies. Someone has done that, someone else will do that. It ’s not my forte. What I wanted to pitch was a memoir, but a memoir through the lens of the relationship with one of my cats, who came to me when I was working at the shelter and who proved to be my biggest challenge in the 14 years that I had him. Every day behavioral challenges, medical challenges. There was always something about him that every time I tried to make a sweeping generalization about cat behavior, he would thumb his nose at me. Every day.
Everything I did at that moment was about reducing the number of dead cats in the shelter.
With him as my teacher, that’s the book I wanted to write.
What would you say is people’s most common misunderstanding about cats that keeps us from getting along with them?
I’d say the No. 1 thing is not understanding that the nature of life with a cat is compromise. If you don’t understand that and try to bend them to your will in the way that we’ve historically been able to bend dogs, to train dogs, to make them more like us, to even facially express like us, that’s not what a cat is. My assertion is that’s not why you brought a cat into your home to begin with. You brought a cat into your home because there is something about the nature of “wild” in your life that you appreciate.
For instance, I have many clients who say, “My cats are peeing on the drapes for years now.” I say, “If they’re peeing right under that picture window, they’re doing it territorially because they’re feeling threatened. I’d like you to put a litter box underneath that picture window. It will give them a positive place to put their scent, and they’ll be able to walk by that window and say, ‘I own this’ and keep walking.” The level of pushback I get on that is staggering. They’d almost rather have pee on their drapes than a litter box under the window. It’s baffling to me. If you refuse to do it, then fine, you’d better like pee on your drapes.
You have to understand what you brought into your home. Framing that, putting that into a compassionate box, is my technique with humans. I can’t just say, “Hey, tough luck.” Then that cat’s going to wind up in the shelter. My goal is to say, for instance, “There are plenty of litter boxes that are actually disguised. An outsider wouldn’t even know it’s a litter box ...” Not everyone is like me; not everyone has a litter box in every single room of the house. I get that. But you do have to embrace compromise if you want to successfully live with cats.