Don't call him a cat whisperer: "My Cat From Hell" host Jackson Galaxy believes cats aren't nearly as mysterious as we think

The Animal Planet host talks about how his cats still surprise him—and how surprising humans keep his job fresh

Published December 8, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

  (Jeff Newton/<a href=''>Belovodchenko Anton</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Jeff Newton/Belovodchenko Anton via Shutterstock/Salon)

For me, talking to Jackson Galaxy was like talking to a rock star. It helps that he kind of looks like one—Galaxy is the tattooed, bearded and totally punk cat behaviorist from Animal Planet’s “My Cat From Hell,” a reality show where he goes into people’s homes and counsels them on their particularly terrible cats. The title of the show, and a lot of its promotion, emphasizes the horror, and indeed, the stories are kind of terrifying. Cats can be clawed, fanged, vicious little buggers, and the show finds some of the most dysfunctional ones.

But Galaxy makes the show into a kind of home-based traveling family therapy, as he comes into each home, meets the cat, and within a few hours or days, finds what is freaking the cat out and shows the parents how to work with it. It looks like magic, but Galaxy resists that characterization—because his mission is to get humans to connect with and understand cats just as much as he does. It’s not just a bias toward cats—Galaxy has both cats and dogs. But cats, he told me, are far more vulnerable to euthanasia in animal shelters, as frustrated adopters surrender troublesome felines and irresponsible parents don’t spay and neuter their kitties. This month the Jackson Galaxy Foundation is partnering with Wellness Natural Pet Foods to send meals to needy pets in shelters—aiming for 150,000 meals by the end of the year. I talked to the Cat Daddy about his foundation, his mission and his own cats—five domestic, five feral, oh, and two dogs, too.

How did you become a cat behaviorist on television?

It was really serendipitous. It was literally just — friends of mine who happened to work in TV introduced me to other people. There was a moment of, “What? That guy? The one with the cat.” What you see on TV is my job—it’s what I do. It wasn’t this big stretch of imagination. And Animal Planet bought in really quickly. I didn’t pitch or do any of those things. It just happened.

It’s certainly filling a need, that’s what I find. You can see the couples on the show are really at their wits’ end. You step in, at this really important time for them.

You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked, “What do you do for a living?” And I tell them, and they go, “Seriously, what’s that?” The idea that your cat could pee on your pool table for six years, and you keep thinking, there’s nothing I can do, but get rid of the cat, but then in the meantime the dog eats through the couch. And in those moments they’re like, “Yeah, I’ll call a dog trainer.” The fact is that people now know, this behavior can be approached and resolved, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for the people like me who come from the shelter system. We know that those cats are going to wind up in the shelter, and now they won’t.

It’s just extraordinary to hear you say—it makes sense, I just haven’t thought of it that way before—that the puzzle of understanding why a cat is acting out is directly related to the survival of the cats that are in the human world, and we abandon them or ignore them, because we don’t know them.

Exactly, this is a couple of fronts I’m trying to attack. Number one is for you to value your animal companions as your family instead of property, so there isn’t that notion in the back of your head—Oh, I want to get rid of the cat. That’s one thing I want to try to approach. The other thing I want people to understand is there’s a very straight line between that cat being surrendered, and that cat dying. In California, if a cat enters the shelter system they have an 80 percent chance of not coming out of there.

None of this would have happened had I not gone to my boss in my shelter and said, “Hey, what about this? How about I go to the house when they call us and say, ‘I’m going to give the cat up.’” And she said, “Yeah, go for it.” If that person hadn’t said, “Yeah, go for it,” I wouldn’t have had a job, we wouldn’t be saving all these cats’ lives, none of that.

Is that why cats became your mission?

Well, it all comes from me getting a job in an animal shelter 20 years ago. I didn’t realize that was my life’s mission, until I started working there. First, it was a way to pay the bills while I was still in music, and then—the cats picked me. They really did. They started coming to me—I didn’t know anything about it. All I knew was that the cats were coming to me, and I had this opportunity to figure out a way to alter their behavior so that I wouldn’t have to kill them. Don’t forget, we were the ones killing them. Euthanasia is the mother of invention. And that’s why the physical investment over time, and obviously, the emotional investment that follows. In our mission statement, I make sure to say we’re here for all at-risk animals. But, of course, everyone knows me as the cat guy. I’m here to bat for cats, and cats have a much better chance at dying in shelters than dogs do.

And their numbers are tremendous. Cats make more cats than dogs make dogs. If we don’t commit to spaying and neutering, and if we don’t commit to a comprehensive approach with feral cats, cats are going to be killed by the millions every year. And so, of course, that’s my launching pad.

So right now, we’re going to start with cats, we’re going to start with how to keep them out of the shelter, and how we preach their adoptability and make it better for them. By the way, making the experience of being in a shelter actually a pleasurable one for a human, that’s a big change that we have to get.

Do you think you get cats better than other people do?

I think a part of it is just sort of better connection, in a way. I appreciate the fact that I have something that they gravitate toward, and we’ve developed a nice connection. On the other hand, this is why I try to resist labels like “the whisperer,” because I don’t want you to think that you can’t communicate with your cat effectively and meaningfully. I do want to teach everybody how to get where I got. Cats are perceived as being so mysterious, and me owning a “whisperer” status damages the chances to unveil the mystery.

And there is that perception, that cats will do whatever they want, or that they can fend for themselves—they don’t really need you and you don’t have to invest the same you might for a dog or another animal.

Right, and that’s another thing. To a certain degree, that’s true. To a certain degree, cats are more self-sufficient than dogs. We have a nest with them— genetically and behaviorally. We let them come along on the ride for all these years. They do some things very well—they kill rodents and other things that threaten our food supply. In that way, they are self-sufficient. However, we’ve also taken them out of the wild and into our homes, and now they are dependent on us. Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.

You have cats now, I think. Tell me a little bit about them.

Well, great question. In my home, I have five cats and two dogs. And then, not in our home, we have another five or six—a feral family that we also consider our cats, and we’re actually building a massive enclosure for them, outside our home. It’s the biggest cat area you’ve ever seen. In the home, the five cats are Berry, Peachy, Lily, Gloria and Caroline. We’re the Brady Brunch. When we got married, I came with my three, and she had her three, and one has died since. That’s been an interesting process — as it’s been for all Brady Bunch-ing.

Do your cats continue to surprise you?

Oh, hell yeah. They surprise me every day, and the relationship between all these cats is constantly evolving. They’re the best of roommates, and we’re working on integrating everybody successfully—and one day suddenly a fight breaks out and you’re like, “I did not see that coming.” There are battles over territory and humans, and the dogs have complicated things. Any time you put nine beings in four walls, shit’s gonna go down. And it does!

For me, I’m no different from anyone else. What makes it easier for me to come into your house and work on your problems is that it’s your problem. I can be somewhat of a journalist, where I can report and give it my best perspective to a certain degree, but then I go home. When I go home, and it’s my problem, I need perspectives as well. Luckily my wife is also a 20-year rescuer, and very intimate with animals as well, so she gives me a lot of perspective. Between the two of us, we work out the problem.

One of the things I love about the show, where I watch your process is that—you said journalist—but I see it as therapy, because you’re often talking to these couples who just had a kid, and they haven’t figured out how to balance the kid’s life with the cat life. You come in and tell them these things that are often kind of difficult. Like that the tension between them is affecting the cat. That’s a very intimate process.

It is, it is. I think cats, more than other animals, are these energetic sponges. Whatever you put out there, they absorb and throw right back at you. In a way they’re also mirrors to their own behavior, which is why we project so much stuff on them. Our desirable human traits, we put right on our cats. Because, in a way, the flip side of them being mysterious is that they’re a blank slate. They are ripe for projection, because of their blank-slate-ness. So, it’s very interesting. I love it, I love delving into the world of other people’s families and their lives, and investing in their loves. And I’m constantly surprised by human behavior. In relation to themselves and their cats, man, I’m constantly bowled over. So that definitely keeps things fresh.

Has there been a cat, or maybe a family situation, that you felt was beyond your expertise?

It’s not about it being beyond my expertise, it’s about just not being the right fit. There are incompatible matches, and that happens. I don’t think humans want to hear that from me, they don’t want to hear that I can’t fix things to their satisfaction. But, you know, I’m not a magician, and that sometimes becomes a sore spot for people, and in the process it’s like I’m teaching them that we’re powerless over certain things. When it comes to relationships, when it comes to other humans, or human-to-animal, or animal-to-animal, chaos is always working, because there is no formula. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I teach to people, to accept the powerlessness to a certain degree. Do what you can with what you got, and recognize that there’s just things in the universe that you’re powerless over.

This is an unexpectedly profound profession.

[Laughs.] It is, yeah.

Lastly, does it really annoy you that when people who don’t particularly like cats meet a cat that they like, they say, “This cat’s so much like a dog!”

Oh, totally. It doesn’t surprise me at all. But that’s my new audience, believe me. Cat people could go and adopt a thousand more cats tomorrow, and it won’t make a dent in the equation needed to get all cats adopted. We need to get dog people on board. I promise you, if you have a dog, and if you can find that cat that will remind you of a dog, you can bring them into your life. You just got to be a little open for the experience, but it’s waiting for you.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Animal Planet Cats Jackson Galaxy My Cat From Hell Tv