When my girlfriend flew from Brooklyn to Las Vegas to visit me in early March of 2020, neither of us knew it would be the end of our long-distance era. For our entire relationship, we’d lived thousands of miles apart, with dozens of red-eye flights and lots of jet lag, weekends packed with a need to do as much as we could together before we didn’t see each other again for a month or sometimes two—and suddenly we were confined to a one-bedroom apartment. With long quarantine hours to fill and no idea how to cohabit, we filled our downtime by watching other people live their lives on TV.
Enter: the Animal Planet show My Cat from Hell, hosted by cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, affectionately referred to as “Cat Daddy.” The premise of the show is simple: Cats behave badly. Sometimes they bite people or defecate on clothes or on white carpeting; they hate new partners and new siblings; and sometimes they simply don’t express their love adequately for their owners. Regardless of the symptom, the cause is the same: an unhappy house. Luckily, Galaxy generally has an antidote.
Cat Daddy’s genesis was so fated, it almost reads like an overwrought short story. Galaxy, a musician in his late twenties, struggled with addiction so severely that death felt likely. He found a job at an animal shelter, met a cat no one had any hope for, broke through to him, and in the end, two lives were changed forever. Almost by divine intervention, a new path revealed itself, and Galaxy went on to help thousands of cats and their families learn to love one another unconditionally. Beginning first as an advice YouTuber, he’s gone on to author four books on cat behavior, has starred in four offshoots of the My Cat from Hell series (including a heartwarming series called My Cat from Heaven), and, most recently, launched a cat toy line.
My girlfriend and I watch My Cat from Hell in bed, one cat at our feet, one by our heads, and the computer between us. On-screen, Galaxy explains to a young couple that their cat, Avery, is peeing on their furniture because he is a “tree cat,” or a cat that prefers to perch in high places, keeping watch. The solution is found in a process he calls “catification”: a combination of making a space more amenable to your cat’s needs by providing it with private nooks or stimulating toys, and of learning to read your cat’s body language, anticipating its needs and wants. Unlike dog behaviorist Cesar Millan, Galaxy is focused less on training your cat to cater to your demands and more on learning to understand your cat’s inner world so you can live harmoniously. On the show, I watch as Avery proudly scales a cat tree and perches on a shelf that’s nearly as high as the ceiling. The peeing stops almost immediately.
Days later, I work myself into a mood as I pick up laundry from the bedroom floor, and I think of Avery. I look around our apartment at the little messes, the wall art that suddenly feels too gaudy, the furniture that crowds the space, and I, too, want to act out.
I think of Galaxy, who seemed to know preternaturally that Avery needed his own perch, that he felt safest when elevated above his surroundings, and, perhaps most important, that in order to thrive, he needed long periods of alone time. I wondered what exactly it was I needed. Perhaps the solution to my new cohabitation was as simple as building myself a perch, or carving out a nook in our shared eight hundred square feet. I emailed Jackson to ask if he’d talk to me about cat behavior because I (not so) secretly hoped his process of catification would tell me something about myself as well.
I. THERE ARE NO CODEPENDENT CATS
THE BELIEVER: So I was watching the Avery episode when I started to think of my own needs in a relationship…
JACKSON GALAXY: Ha ha. You’ve gotta get more specific than that.
BLVR: Oh, true! I bet you’ve known a thousand Averys. [Jackson taps his head with his hands like “mind exploding.”]
What I’ve noticed on your show is that you come in and quickly notice that there’s something off with the space and are able to diagnose it and treat it with a simple interior solution like a cat tree or a designated corner. I started to think, What if all I need is a cat tree? Maybe I need a little space that I can claim as my territory. And, What else about cat behavior applies to sharing a space with someone else? What can we learn from them? Cats are so sensitive to different energies and to living with partners and to people who date that you become very in tune with their energies, overly sensitive to them.
JG: I love it. It’s interesting because—well, you noticed it—when I go into a house, everything is code. When I say “space” or “territorial anxiety,” I’m really trying to worm my way into the family dynamic—the human-cat family dynamic—because folks don’t want me to come into the house and tell them stuff about themselves. They want to know what the cat is doing wrong. The rules of relationship apply interspecies, intraspecies. It just so happens that cats are empathic without having the option of building up a wall or a bubble around themselves. So they enforce it by walking away, by finding somewhere to go that is away from us, and then they come to us when they want to. In a lot of ways, I think we should be jealous of them, because I don’t know any co-
dependent cats, now that I think about it.
BLVR: Oh, I have one. Ha.
JG: Do you really? I knew as soon as I said it that I’d be wrong. How does your cat express codependency?
BLVR: She was the runt of her litter. She was born on my coworker’s farm. She was really sick when she was born, so her mother would take her across the field to die, away from her other kittens. My coworker watched as my cat struggled to find her way back for two days and then decided to take her in and nurse her to health. After some antibiotics, she was fine. She attached very strongly to a blind barn cat, but then she kept finding ways to sneak into their house, and it became too much for them to have an indoor cat. So I adopted her when she was four months old. I treated her like a baby. I wrapped her in a makeshift BabyBjörn while I cooked. I made her this way.
JG: That’s interesting. As I was saying that [about codependent cats], I was like, Jackson, you’re totally wrong. About bottle babies specifically. We’ve got one right now that just has to be with my wife, needs her. We rescued her the day she was born—we teach them to be human in that way. It’s so funny. I was just doing a consultation with a pair of cats: one of them comes running; as soon as she hears her bonded pair, she comes running.
BLVR: You know what, though? As I say this… Where is she right now? Where is my codependent cat? She’s not on my lap right now. She’s sleeping… Oh, she’s over there.
JG: Where are you? Where’s the “co” part?
BLVR: She takes space if she needs to. She has a spot by the door she goes to at night if she’s being too coddled.
JG: That’s what I’m saying is the beautiful thing about cats. It’s enviable. They’re just so Zen. At this moment, I love you. I want you. Then, When I’m done, I’ll be over there. Humans have a really hard time with that. I mean, I do.
BLVR: I do too. I know so many couples who either can’t see each other right now because of COVID or can’t not see each other because they’re in such cramped spaces.
JG: I liked when you said that you need to have your own cat tree.
BLVR: Ha, yes, I was jealous of Avery. He gets to live above everyone.
JG: Exactly. Just out of reach. They know that’s how they preserve their relationships. I mean, everyone is having a hard time. A lot of people adopted cats for the first time during the pandemic. So now we’ve got all these cats, dogs, humans, kids, locked up together. It’s a challenge no matter how loving the family might be. It’s going to present a challenge. That’s what I’ve been trying to talk people through. At least with their cats.
II. WEIRD LITTLE RITUALS
BLVR: So you were a musician first. Is it too poetic to think that when you enter a home for the first time, you bring some sort of musicality to it? Is it improvisatory? Or are you grounded in one philosophy that you follow in each situation?
JG: I came to this as an artist. When I was very young, I wanted to be a writer, then a songwriter, then a performer, and as all those things congealed together, that is what I brought to the table. I’m not the other side of the brain. I’m not grounded in science. We are good people-watchers. We artists watch, create a reality, and then we live together in that reality. So that’s the way I started working with cats. They picked me, and then I hung out with them, then I read and tried to figure out how to get in. So if I have anything, that’s what I have. When I walk into a space, I do a little weird ritual, clear myself, and do whatever I can to be as much of a participant as possible. I try to get that creative process merged with the world I’m getting into.
Improvisation is a huge part of it. I’ve walked onstage before not knowing at all where it was going to go, and that’s the most alive I’ve ever felt in this life: when I throw myself in and don’t know where exactly I’m going to end up. I’ve been lucky so far, and this is not about results; it’s not about the red bow at the end of the TV show. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we have to put a red bow on it, it’s TV, we have twenty-two minutes of your attention. In life, my success is measured by how well I get to know you, your life, your cat-human relationships. It’s about how well I get you to understand the other in your relationship and how that involves things we assume go well with the human-human relationship: listening, knowing, vulnerability, compromise. It’s a lot to ask a human to do with their four-legged friends, but it’s the water that I hope I’m leading the horse to.
BLVR: It’s a lot to ask a human to do with another human.
JG: That’s true. It’s taken me a long time to learn that. Every day it’s a lesson.
BLVR: Can you share what you do to cleanse your energy, what you called your “weird little ritual”? I mean, if it’s a trade secret, I won’t ask you to divulge it.
JG: I ain’t got no trade, man. I do a body check, so I stand at the front door and I’ll just go from toes to head and make sure there is no part of my body holding stress, tension, anxiety, or dirt from a previous conversation—stuff, y’know. I want to be as close as I can be to empty. I’ve been sober for many years, so the Serenity Prayer is always a part of my world (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”). I recite that and then I walk in.
Cats are so sensitive to energy. If I walk in with that weight to me, they’ll know. One of the reasons—and this was in my first book, Cat Daddy—one of the reasons I finally got sober was because at that point I felt like this was the thing I wanted to do with my life, and I was prohibited from being in their world because I was loaded and they knew it. It’s funny: the things that we wouldn’t do for another human being, we’d do for an animal.
BLVR: I’m fascinated by this idea that if you’re not in your body, if you’re not present, there’s no way you can break through to another animal or being, in general.
JG: Exactly: a human animal or any other animal. It’s funny how, when I was loaded, I thought I was the most incredible social butterfly. I could go to a party and be completely at ease. Now, by the way, if I’m not onstage performing, or if I don’t have a job to do, if I just have to mingle, I’m miserable. Before, I thought I was so social, but there were no relationships that were formed, because it’s not possible to be in a relationship with another if you aren’t in one with yourself.
As you were saying before, the lesson of trying to better yourself in a relationship is something I’m still working on literally every single day, whether it’s with my wife, the guys that work with me, friends, or animal friends. I’m constantly having to freaking apologize, back up, check myself, and figure out my part in all this.
BLVR: I mean, me too.
JG: Here’s an interesting one: So I was doing a consultation the other day, and it’s hard enough because we do video consults now. Without giving it away—I don’t want to get her into trouble—but it was about this person who had spent her life working in shelters, working with rescues, working with ferals. Then she bought two kittens from a breeder and they had issues. By the time she got to me, she’d turned it into this very big thing that also involved rejection from them to her, meaning they’d rejected her, they were terrified of her, and whatever the reason was, it was just who they were. It had nothing to do with anything else. When it came down to me assigning homework, it was the very basic stuff that you see on the show: play with your cat, do some catification, and release your expectations from this relationship.
The wounds we feel if we feel rejected go to people and animals. I mean, you’ve watched the show: how many times have you seen a cat pee on something that belongs to their owner—I feel like it’s usually guys—and that’s it, they’re cut off. How dare you! We put that human value on it, as if I’d walked up and spit in your food or something.
We should be giving ourselves the permission to challenge our trauma cats to do more, to be more social, to be brave, for their own benefit. You’re doing this because the more confidence you have in the world, the better your life is. The more you keep yourself small, the worse your life is. So it’s our job as parents, really, to ask or to put them in positions where we ask them to be the best version of themselves without totally terrifying them. So that’s the other side of this. We sometimes don’t want to ask too much of them, because we don’t want to put ourselves out there to be rejected by them. All those relational touch points—they all apply to animals.
BLVR: I adopted a rescue cat named Susan a few months ago to keep my other cat, Babycat, company. They get along great, but Susan doesn’t always feel comfortable around me or any humans and spends most of her time under the bed. My girlfriend and I have different parenting styles: she wants her to be more bold and thinks I’m coddling Susan, but I think that’s asking too much from an essentially feral cat.
JG: Well, that’s it. You gave her permission to come out and be a part of something. You built that relationship through Susan’s bond with Babycat and Babycat’s bond with you.
Isn’t it interesting, though, when you think about it? It’s so much easier to gauge your success in a relationship when it’s with an animal. You know what I mean? Oh, you were under the bed and now you’re not. I must be doing something right. As opposed to with humans, where it’s often so hard to tell how the relationship is, like: Are you doing OK? Are you doing this right?
BLVR: Yeah, I never accuse Susan of having a weird tone or being passive-aggressive.
JG: No ulterior motives. The beautiful thing about animals is that they deal with what’s in front of them. One thing I can tell you is that I’ve never met a cat that’s made an excuse. No I’ll do it later; Yeah, but… Everything is just an opportunity: Oh, that’s a good place to sleep; Oh, I like you or No, I don’t like you; I’m scared; I’m traumatized. Maybe that’s what makes it easier to gauge our roles in their lives.
III. THE MEME-IFICATION OF A CAT LOVER
BLVR: I’m thinking a lot about cat culture in general—you know: cat memes, cat jokes, cat videos. The internet has really built up the cat persona, largely through cat stereotypes and meme-ification. Remember when everyone was obsessed with Tiger King at the beginning of the pandemic? Do you have opinions on that?
JG: I have lots of opinions on almost everything. I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Listen, there is nothing wrong with humans being obsessed with cats. I want more of it. We still have a huge problem in terms of not enough cats getting homes. The idea is thrilling that we can get more people to think, I want a cat. On the other hand, we make assumptions: Oh, you have cats? You must be x, y, or z. Suddenly you’re put into that crazy-cat-lady box, which is a pretty horrifying box. I’m also a dog person. I also have three dogs and I love them as much as I love my cats. I worry that once you’ve meme-ified something, you’ve plaster-casted it, bronzed it, and that gives me pause.
BLVR: I know how you became a cat behaviorist. You worked at a shelter, you found a cat that was particularly challenging, and you broke through. So now that you are known as Cat Daddy, is there a part of you that struggles with being known as a cat behaviorist more than as a musician? Is there a part of you that is like, What about my HBO special, Cat Daddy Rock Star?
JG: It’s interesting to me. I was driven from the first time I picked up a guitar, and I was only nine. I was writing short stories before that. I was committed. When I started working at the shelter, I was twenty-six. I took the job only because I was broke, and I felt that if I worked another job with a human, I would lose it. If I took another service position, I would lose it. So I scooped shit and I loved it, actually.
Anytime you’d go to the break room, you’d have cats all over you, and I’d had no experience with cats before, but soon there was a running joke at the shelter where everyone was calling me “Cat Boy.” I knew that choices were being made without me making choices. There came a point after I left the shelter when I was trying to make a go of it: things started happening in terms of having clients, whatever. I remember my dad saying to me, “You will have to make a choice,” and I got all fourteen-years-old on him, like “Screw you, Dad! I’ll never have to make a choice.” The second the show came on the air, that choice was made. I had no time to do anything but that show for almost ten years. The music went away. Now, in quarantine, without a show, I’m starting to reclaim music a bit.
I’m thoroughly grateful. In truth, if it weren’t for the road that led me to animals and the road that led me to desire a bigger presence with animals, I would have been dead twenty years ago, easily. I was going to be dead. Everyone was shocked when I wasn’t dead, honestly. So I’m grateful for that every single day, but, yeah, I miss music.
BLVR: I know you’ve got cats you have to help here, so I have one last question: If you’re experiencing tension between yourself and your partner, or, say, if you walk into a cat house and you can sense tension between a person and a cat, what would be the immediate suggestion you’d have?
JG: Go to your corner. Just stop. You’re not getting anywhere and you’re not going to. Like, OK, if you’ve called me, you’ve got an issue. You think your cat’s got the issue, but the hardest part a lot of times is just managing expectations. Me? What’s it got to do with me? Just split. Go to your corner and think about your own part in this.
I think being able to allow for that breath to be taken is really important and really hard for everybody, because you’re releasing from your worldview. You’re releasing from everything you’ve invested in this relationship, because I’m telling you that you’ve hit that wall. That’s hard, man. Your not taking that breath means you’ll never see the other side of it. Relationships are not one of those things that can be willed into existence. A relationship becomes a thing unto itself. We can guide it one way or another, but it’s its own thing. I know that’s mystical, but whatever.