Interview with Jackson Galaxy

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Interview with Jackson Galaxy by certified clinical animal behaviourist Anita Kelsey

With a unique presence, genuine compassion and purveyor of many hair-raising moments with cats, US cat behaviourist Jackson Galaxy was transformed into a star after hosting the TV show ‘My Cat From Hell‘ on Animal Planet.

Here, Jackson Galaxy stops fiddling with his Da Bird feather long enough to talk to UK fellow cat behaviourist Anita Kelsey about stinky pink shag carpets, cat jumpsuits, and Cat Mojo music videos.

Jackson Galaxy is a warm, approachable and deeply insightful person who has made it his mission in life to educate us all on why our cats do the things they do so that we can expand our perceptions of them and gain a better understanding of their needs.

From his successful TV show to writing his first book ‘Cat Daddy’ and now ‘Catification’ it seems Jackson is set to take over the world! Speaking on the phone from LA Jackson talks openly with warmth and humour giving his own personal take on cat-human relations.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. First of all congratulations on your new book ‘Catification’. Would you like to tell us a little about the book and how it came about?

Obviously one of the planks to my behaviour platform approach is environmental enrichment. From the first time people heard of me I was talking about vertical spaces, cat super highways, bush dwellers, tree dwellers, getting to know your cat, that’s just always been a real big part of problem-solving from my angle and about 2 years ago I got to meet Kate Benjamin (Haunspather and Modern Cat) and I just totally vibed with her approach to environmental enrichment, because it was important that she put out there that just because you want to catify does not mean that your house has to look the way you think. Everybody has a sort of collective consciousness to what the ‘crazy cat lady’ house looks like. It almost borders on the hoarding look (laughter), you know, pink shagged carpeting everywhere and it’s all clawed to death and accompanied by that smell and everything. It was essential to feel like we could show people that that’s not necessarily true. Haunspanther does that on a daily basis. It shows you that you can be stylish, you don’t have to pay a million dollars for it. We became fast friends and I decided to write a book. It’s two years ago now and off to the races we went. It’s been a really organic process, a lot of fun and I really do hope that’s it’s going to make a difference to those who are getting to the end of their rope with their cat, as well as a lot of people want to enrich their cat’s life. So many behaviour problems that I know that can be aided, at the very least, by properly catifying your house, so we’re using examples from My Cat From Hell. We’re pulling out some of the best catified spaces from the show. We’ve been soliciting examples from my web site for over a year now and we’ve gotten inundated with people from all over the world showing us what they’ve done which is also really exciting.

Yes, that’s amazing actually. I think it’s going to be a huge best seller. It’s about time something like this came out on the market, so I wish you guys the best of luck with that.

Why, thank you.

I really enjoyed reading your first book, The Cat Daddy. What do you feel is the biggest misconception that people have about keeping cats?

The biggest misconception I think – and this is for people who tend to edge more towards dogs than cats – is that they’re not like an active part of your family, they’re more like furniture than like family and it’s part of my goal to debunk that. They’re not aloof animals. They just express love in a different way. They’re not so attached to the outcome of that love as dogs or humans are, so it’s just learning how they express themselves that I think is really one of the keys. I do think that the biggest misconception is that they’re not socially needy, that they are so independent that they don’t care about you.

Yes, so people have this misconception and then they don’t really bother doing anything for the cat, which I think you highlight in My Cat From Hell as well.

Right, it’s a vicious cycle where you assume you know what cats are like.. “Well, if my cat doesn’t need me, why do I need her” and then, you know, the two of us spend our lives staring at each other and that means you don’t have a bond. I think the reason why so many more cats are surrendered to shelters than dogs is that the bond is harder to come by. There’s always that underlying resentment “I do so much for you and you do nothing for me” and that is ongoing. I try to show – no, there’s a lot you get from this relationship.

Yes, I hear so many people say “my cat sleeps all day and it doesn’t play”. I hear it all the time and it’s very frustrating.

Of course, yeah. Listen, cats have biological needs. Do they sleep a lot? Yes, they sleep a lot. Do they spend a lot of their time staring out the window? Yep, that’s what they do, but it doesn’t mean you can’t structure their circadian rhythm to accommodate yours and when you come home at night, from work, you know your cat is going to be right there. It’s not just about them wanting food. They want you. When you wake up in the morning they’re completely up and at it with you. They’re already adjusted to your rhythm, so why not take it that step further and actually interact with them at that time.

You’re a huge inspiration to me so I’d like to ask you who has inspired you most on your journey and how much have they had an influence on your working philosophy?

Well, in terms of the world that we work in they’re hard to come by. Even to this point there are not that many of us. When I first started, even up to a couple of years ago, people were laughing at me when I told them what I do for a living and we’re just starting to get past that, so when it comes to influences, sometimes that’s hard to come by. Now, that said, one of my earliest influences was Anitra Frazier because not only does her book The New Natural Cat change the way I look at, not just the health of cats, but health, it seems a very body-mind connected thing. She did for a living what I wanted to do. She proved that even in the late 70’s/early 80’s you could just get on your bike and go ride around New York and make a living from understanding cats. That was really important and that’s something I try to pass on today.

Wasn’t she a cat groomer too?

I think you’re right. She was also a groomer and then she branched out to be a behaviourist. There are other people like her. When I first started out I definitely looked wherever I could. Pam Johnson Bennett is another example. With Twisted Whiskers and Think Like A Cat and things like that she showed that there is an audience out there who are hungry for knowledge about their cat. These are where I gained inspiration. I also gleaned inspiration from people who, in the animal world, were trying to show us that animals feel as deeply as humans do – especially cats, because they are to a certain degree inscrutable from our perspective.Marc Bekoff (he wrote the Emotional Lives Of Animals) – I am lucky enough to have known him. He teaches at the University of Colorado, where I went and he’s an ethologist who I find fascinating. His goal is to show us that animals experience the world the way we do and my goals in this life are not just about making life better for cats, but about making life better for animals. I just believe that if we as humans acknowledge there’s death, then we will stop treating them as objects. If we stop treating them as objects less of them will die. Marc was definitely a big influence on me.

I will have to check him out. Have you heard of Dr Sophia Yin?

No

Ok. She’s is a veterinarian and animal behaviourist who has become an expert on low stress handling. Her work is shaping the new standard of care for veterinarians and animal care professionals. I find her work amazing.

How do you spell her last name? I will definitely look her up. Anybody who is doing what we do, believe me, I am 100% behind them. We’re still a little bit of a minority and anybody who’s on this team man, I’m all for it.

Absolutely. What’s been your most challenging behaviour case? Not so much in terms of the cat but in terms of challenging a client’s attitude to change?

Well, My Cat From Hell is a collection of stories of people who I have to try to help gain understanding of the depth of emotion of their animals. I think we all have a basic nurturing need but I think that when we see animals as equals, as opposed to subjugating them, our stake in saving them becomes much more real. In terms of My Cat From Hell, that’s where I’m always heading. The whole cat mojo approach is not just think like them but feel like them. What is it to get into the skin of an animal? I think that’s where my life as an artist really comes in handy, because as a writer, an actor and performance artist, my goal is to get enough into the skin of another that I can transmit to you as an audience. I really think that getting my clients into the mindset is important. There’s an episode where one of the couple was a total dog guy and to get them into the mindset of cats I actually showed up with cat costumes.

I remember that one (laughs)

It was a lot of fun man. There was a great laugh to be had in there and it was one of those great things. I mean if I wasn’t on a TV show and I turned up at your house with a cat costume you would probably kick me out but you gotta use what you got. But with him, by the end of the episode, he really had a core understanding of how his cat experiences the world and that’s what I’m aiming for. [How wrong he is - if Jackson turned up at MY house with cat costumes I'd be raring to go!][/How]

I find it more interesting watching how you try to change the client’s perspective. It’s not so much you trying to change the cat. It’s more about changing the client, the environment and how they interact. It’s interesting when they resist you with some completely ignoring what you say.

It is a hubris. It is that thing “why would I put my own needs behind the needs of an animal?” You can really boil it down to that. It’s resentment that’s underneath the surface. We hear like “Wait a minute, you want me to put a litter box in my living room? Why would I do that?” Well because you don’t want your cat peeing on the drapes – “No! how do I break the cat of peeing on the drapes?” Well, you let them know their territory is secure and this is the way to do that. “No no no – I did not want the world knowing that” – blah blah blah and then the goal becomes how do we get you guys to realise that this is the kindness that you would show anybody that you bring into your home. This is basic kindness. This is their needs, so understand what hurts them and gives them joy and then you’ll probably do it.

In the UK most rescue centres will only consider a healthy cat going to a new home if that home has access to the outdoors, whereas in the US it seems that people are encouraged to keep their cats indoors. Could you give us your personal viewpoint on this?

I didn’t even know that. That’s crazy. I know the mindset is very different in various parts of the world than it is to the US and it’s funny, because it has been this constant struggle for me. When I bring up cats being indoor only (and I’m not talking about internationally, I’m talking about in the States), I get constant throw backs and that’s why Kate (Benjamin) and I work extra hard on catification, talking about catios and I’m sure that we have a project coming up soon which is more about catios. More about allowing cats indoor or outdoors, but either supervised or giving them enclosures where they can experience the outdoors, but in a safe way. I’ve got to tell you, it may be acceptable in certain places to let cats roam, but here in the States at least (and again this is coming from someone who has spent ten years working in a shelter or working with shelters) we deal with a lot of dead cats. We deal with a lot of missing cats. We know that if your cat goes missing and lets say you don’t have that cat micro-chipped and you don’t have a collar and tag, you have a two percent chance of reclaiming that cat. Two percent! Between traffic, predators, unscrupulous people and the world at large, are you willing to make that choice between quantity and quality. Do you feel that is a choice that needs to be made? Personally, I am selfish, I want my cats around and I think that I can enrich their lives in such a way that they won’t miss wandering the neighbourhood.

It’s interesting. There are many differences between the UK and the US and I wondered if you knew that is how most rescue centres operate over here.

I know that indoor outdoor thing is definitely a difference but I gotta tell you I’m still in the minority here too unless people live in major metropolis’s. I’m sure in London people are not letting their cats roam constantly, are they?

Normal moggies yes. Even rescue centres in London generally won’t allow a normal healthy cat to be adopted, unless the home has access to the outside. Unless you own a breed of cat, where most people do keep them exclusively indoors.

I find that kind of funny when you think about it. Here you are in a major city and you’re saying they won’t adopt this cat to you unless you let it outside? To me that defies logic, again that’s just me. But hey listen, here in the States we have long standing adoption policies that make no sense to me either and it is the goal of my foundation, which is hopefully getting off the ground in the next month or so, to change the dialogue a little around sheltering and I don’t believe that should be restricted to the States.

Well, at least we don’t declaw cats over here (tongue in cheek laugh).

No doubt, no doubt! Great point and again one of my biggest talking points. I mean, Jesus, come on. [I've been very interested for a while in Jackson's discussion of this subject and would have loved to get him talking more about it, however time was running out. Here's a link for anyone interested][/I've]

For someone with ambitions to become a good cat behaviourist would you say formal qualifications are advisable in an industry that’s becoming more and more competitive?

Well, I think the standard of qualification is pretty slippery. I don’t really think that there’s one governing body that holds everyone to the same standards. Those qualifications to me, a lot of times, are just letters. They don’t really mean anything. I think that anybody who is hiring anybody to do anything should look into their qualifications. Look into what they’ve done. Look into how many they have worked with. I mean, I wouldn’t hire me unless I had on my resumé that I had worked with hundreds of cats before I step into their house. That’s the benefit of working in a shelter, of working with cats all the time. To be honest, there’s not a standard, at this point, where you can say ‘Oh, this person is blah blah blah blah, well they must be good.

Right, I’m not sure how different it is between the UK and the US but with the UK most behaviour cases are vet-referred and a vet would want to see academic qualifications to be confident in referring. It’s probably different in the US?

Oh totally. Here in the US anybody can call themselves a cat behaviourist but you gotta do your due diligence if they back it up with something. Again, something I’m really hoping to change. I’ve gotten a lot of requests from people who want to get into this line of work to have me do a mojo boot camp type of thing, which I’m incredibly flattered about and would love to do. It’s just about carving up the time to do that, but I do think it would help if we all had a standard we worked from. There’s always room for different methods. Most, if not all cat behaviourists that I know and respect have differences in opinion about something.

Yes I know! (laughs)

Well, that’s who we are. But that said, I know that the people that I refer to have the same ethical base and the same way that I would never refer to a dog trainer who uses choke collars and arcane methods that involve too much hands on. Same way with cats. If our educational process, you and me and everybody else, that talks and blogs about cats, is about that baseline of understanding, we need to empower guardians with that basic knowledge. It’s our job. It’s for guardians to know … “I know my cat needs XYZ but what am I doing here that’s not providing that?”

Absolutely. One last question. How do you manage a good balance of cats and music with such a hectic schedule?

Well, to be completely honest, my music has unfortunately taken a complete back seat since My Cat From Hell started. I have no time. I feel like the window is open right now to spread the message, to get my foundation off the ground, to write books about catification and to do shows like My Cat From Hell and I’m going to definitely put energy into that. In the meantime the only thing I was ever passionate about besides animals was music and there’s definitely a hole in me right now, because I haven’t spent enough time with it. That said, I think I’m going to over the next few months, while we’re on a hiatus. I’m gonna try to get back into the studio and do a few gigs, get my feet wet again. You don’t put away 30 years of doing something.

Maybe you could post up a few videos for us all, of you singing and playing acoustically?

Funny you should say that. My voice is a little raggedy the past couple of days but in my weekly You Tube Video Cat Mojo, I was actually going to do that this week. I would in the next few weeks look for the music, as it will definitely be there.

Thank you. I am one of your biggest fans. You have been a huge inspiration to me so thank you so much for talking to me.

Thank you so much for saying that. It’s important and good to know the message gets received.

So, there you have it. I had so many questions I wanted to ask and could have chatted with Jackson all day into the night but sadly my time was up. They shall be saved for next time ;-)

The new book Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!) co-authored by Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin of Hauspanther is now available for pre-order HERE!

www.jacksongalaxy.com

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