By Duncan Strauss
Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy launched his Animal Planet program My Cat From Hell, a hair (whisker?) over three years ago, and in that short time, the show has zoomed into a full-blown hit series, while Galaxy has blossomed into a wildly popular feline guru and budding cultural icon.
There’s a litter of reasons, large and small, that help explain his meteoric trajectory. For starters, anybody doing anything with cats strikes a major chord. I mean, what’s viewed more frequently on Facebook than cat pictures and videos? Right, nothing.
Too, Galaxy projects a striking appearance: Bald, he sports a long, inverted-pyramid beard and muttonchops that won’t quit, earrings and tattoos aplenty. Not exactly your garden-variety professorial pet expert in a cardigan. Yet a look totally befitting a longtime rock musician who initially took an entry-level position at an animal shelter because he considered it a simple day job that would enable him to focus his energies on pursuing his dream: a successful career in rock ‘n’ roll.
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Mostly, though, the Jackson juggernaut can be attributed to the way Galaxy operates on My Cat From Hell, and the impressive results he generates.
In essence, he visits the homes of people whose cats are exhibiting problematic behavior, observes the interaction of the cat in question and the humans (whose behavior often turns out to be the root of the problem), assessing what can be done to improve domestic tranquility, often assigning “homework” to serve as a catalyst (sorry!) for effective change.
The upshot is that those cats—those households, really—are magically transformed, peace is restored, and over the course of upwards of 100 such cases presented on the TV series, Galaxy has cemented his reputation as something of a feline miracle worker.
He truly is a singular guy with a singular style reaping singular results. Still, as outlined in his book, Cat Daddy: What the World’s Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean, he hasn’t had an easy life—early on, he battled multiple addictions and, at one point, experienced a nervous breakdown.
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Interviewing Galaxy for the June 25 edition of Talking Animals, I asked how the rough road he’s traveled in his personal life might account for his peculiar gifts—the distinctive insights and intuition he displays in helping the troubled cats and humans–we see on “My Cat From Hell.”
“My history, which is basically being a long-time shelter worker with a well-documented history of substance abuse and recovery, and—I told this story in my book—it was really animals that brought me out of my tailspin,” he explained.
“I know it sounds kind of cliché, but it’s a story that’s been repeated by many an addict. Which is that we lost touch with our empathetic nature, the thing that makes us reach out to others, the thing that makes us feel valued as a member of something.
“And when you are working with animals, you get struck with that sensation that they are wholly dependent on you, and they look to you for everything. And who am I to turn that away? I’ve actually spoken to addicts in recovery who’ve said the same thing: ‘I didn’t care what my wife or husband or boy or girlfriend or children had to say, I didn’t care any more. It was all about getting loaded.’
“But as I was committing slow suicide, I found myself wanting to take care of the dogs. To me, it was a karmic debt. I know that dogs and cats—all animals–saved my life, and I know I wouldn’t be here, so I dedicate my life to helping them.”
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Yes, the Cat Daddy spent his early animal years as intimately involved with dogs as cats, and tends to share his home with both canines and felines. But he sees, in retrospect, that once he tamed his personal demons, his talent for working with animals revealed itself, and he seemed to feel a particular affinity for cats. And vice versa.
“Yeah, it was really a matter of the cats choosing me,” he recalled. “I mean, I was not in a position to really want to give myself to animals. You have to remember, I started working at the animal shelter because I was a musician who wanted to dedicate my life to music and I felt like I wanted to do maybe a brainless job that didn’t involve people. And maybe I could do some good at the same time.
“So cleaning cages all day long was fine, and kept me out of trouble. And when the cats started coming to me, for whatever reason, it became this no-brainer activity on my part to get to know them better, to get to learn how they see the world, to research as much as I could, to just do what I could.
“It’s not so much about being an addict, it’s about being a shelter worker. And what I think gives shelter workers a unique opportunity and vantage point—I don’t know how to put it, but what makes their position unique is that we are in charge of loving animals and we’re also in charge of ending their lives. And it is absolutely gut wrenching to do those things.
“And when you’re given the opportunity to save those lives, in the present moment, if I can change this cat’s behavior just a little bit, just to make them adoptable, or more adoptable, and get them out of that building, then they won’t die. That’s plain and simple math.
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“And now, when you see these techniques that I use—intuition, science, the mixture—it’s all about what I learned trying to save those lives. Euthanasia is the mother of invention. Knowing that [sometimes] I only had a couple of hours, really firmed up my imagination, and the desire. That’s where a lot of this comes from, from working within the animal welfare world. And that’s where I still live today.”
It’s clearly a traceable, if unusual, arc from guy scooping poop in the kennels of an animal shelter to the gato guru fronting his own hit TV show, part of an expanding Galaxy galaxy that includes hosting an online series, Cat Mojo with Jackson Galaxy, launching a line of cat play production, and publishing his second book in October, Catification.
“My whole practice started,” Galaxy explained, “when I was working at the shelter and my boss had the presence of mind to say ‘Hey, listen, when people call us up and say they’re about ready to give up their cat, if you go into their homes, and you fix the problem, the cat doesn’t end up here, and we don’t wind up with a problem.’
“So I would go there and fix the problem. And I would go to their home after adoption, make sure everything was going OK. You don’t understand cats until you understand them in a territory. Cats behaviorally do not exist in a vacuum—territory is so important to them.
“And when you see the dysfunction in the home territory, it gives you insights that you couldn’t possibly have seen before. And, again, if you watch my show, you know that 50% of what I do is dealing with human stuff, and half of it is cat stuff. And that’s just come from all those years of working in homes.”
Anyone who’s seen one episode of My Cat From Hell, or all of them, knows that the program hinges on Galaxy making house calls, as it were. He doesn’t do it any other way. You don’t see clients bringing the cat to Galaxy at an office or examining room, or meeting him at any other location.
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No, he wants to see the cat in the cat’s home habitat. How it interacts (or doesn’t) with the other animals—non-human and human—and get a feel for that cat’s territory. From
Galaxy’s standpoint, there’s no other way to do this effectively. As some clients have learned the hard way.
“As many satisfied clients as I’ve had over the years, I also have frustrated ones, too, “ he said, “because I wouldn’t do phone consults at all. Of course, I ran a helpline. If we’re just trying to slap a Band-Aid on something so somebody doesn’t give up their cat, ok, sure.
“But I don’t really get when behavior consultants are dedicating their lives to being on the phone. I don’t see any possible way to get to know an animal, and get to know their issues, if you’re not in their home….When I do public speaking engagements, I do Q&A and I say, ‘Listen, don’t start your questions with ‘I have a cat who does dot-dot-dot’ because I can’t answer it—I don’t know your cat.’”
He might not know your cat, as a discussion topic, removed from its territory. But he quite obviously does know cats, generally, experience born of years of in-home visits (in addition to the televised versions, he does this in his private practice), and all those formative years working in shelters. And then there’s Benny.
Benny is Jackson Galaxy’s late cat, an animal that made a huge impact on Galaxy, in a variety of ways, as suggested by the subtitle of his book, Cat Daddy: What the World’s Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean.
Benny landed in Galaxy’s care under inauspicious circumstances (injured, considered difficult, etc.), and, he remembered on Talking Animals, that he was told Benny was “unbondable,” noting he was in his addiction life then, “and feeling pretty unbondable myself.”
Nonetheless, he and Benny forged a powerful bond, and by the time the cat passed away 14 years later, he turned out to be “the most challenging animal I’ve ever worked for.” For is an interesting, telling choice of words.
It’s clear from reading the book, and chatting with Galaxy, that his relationship with Benny was laced with challenges, but also represented a sweeping, profound love story.
As he observes in Cat Daddy, most everyone who’s an animal person has had a Benny in their life—meaning an extraordinary animal with whom one develops an extraordinary relationship, often spanning an extraordinarily long period.
Of course, there’s one monumental downside to having a Benny–and I speak from experience (my Benny was a prickly genius named Otis)—and that’s when the Benny becomes seriously ill, and dies. It’s devastating. The grief and sense of loss mirrors the feelings of losing an important human—a reaction that can seem esoteric to non-animal people.
And, worse, dismissed by them: “Oh, it was just a cat—why are you so upset?” What those folks fail to understand is that there’s something truly rarefied about that kind of animal, that Benny, that burrows into your heart and soul. Their impact on your life is huge and potent when they’re around, so it only stands to reason the impact on your life would be huge and potent when they’re gone.
Coping with it can be brutal. And few are immune, certainly not Galaxy. “One of the wonderful things about the book is that I started the book in the final days of Benny’s life, just sitting with him and feeling helpless,” he said.
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“I’m somebody who’s a fixer, and it was not a fixable situation. It was more a matter of keeping him comfortable; he was sort of in hospice at that moment. And I just started writing, because that was the only thing that was going to keep me sane. The next year of my life was fulfilling a promise that I made to him before he died that I would tell his story. From the time of writing it until the time of going on a book tour and promoting it, it was a year and a half, and it was still—and will always be–something very dear to me.
“I gotta tell you, man, telling his story had uncovered so much, in terms of the human-animal bond. When I go out and I talk to audiences, it’s almost like people have been granted permission to love the animals in their lives to such a huge degree—to such a huge degree that sometimes I think we feel guilty about it. When an animal passes, we feel this unbelievable loss, almost sometime more than with a human death.
“And we feel weird and guilty about it. Benny’s story allowed people to feel permission to go there. To me, I gotta tell you, man, that really did it for me. It made me feel like I had a purpose.”