Animal Planet's "My Cat From Hell" made Jackson Galaxy a household name. But before he made a career out of helping the public understand their animals and correct their issues, Galaxy met a down-and-out cat, Benny, while he himself was down and out, chronicled in the book "Cat Daddy." He's been a passionate advocate for animal rights ever since, concentrating on behavioral issues and helping to reduce the feral cat population. This November, he hosts Cat Camp in Las Vegas, a celebration of all things feline, and is set to tour in support of his latest book "Total Cat Mojo" in 2020. He sat down with us to discuss all of the above.
In "Cat Daddy," your inspiring relationship with Benny is tenderly told. What's the most important thing you learned from Benny?
The most important thing was everything. I started writing the book to pass the time while he was in hospice. It was a way to honor him while he was getting ready to leave. He turned into a symbol of all the cats that I had worked with and was working with at the time. He/they taught me about being alive in the present moment. That’s where it all starts. I think one of humans’ major downfalls is that we spend all our time either worrying about the future or obsessing about the past and we forget to live here. Cats are just so masterful at that. He demanded that from me. And he wasn’t going to give me anything as long as I stayed under the influence, under the influence of drugs or the past or the future. Even though he wasn’t the first animal in my life, I think it was because it was so hard to earn his trust and love, that once that was there, the nature of true love, present love, it was a real gift.
Some people just seem to bond with animals instantly. Why do you think that is/what qualities do you think that involves?
I’m not sure I know. I think, to a certain degree, I have an innate respect and curiosity and sort of baseline caring for everyone I meet, four-legged or two. That’s just something that has always been part of my life. I think that’s what made me a writer for so many years, was wanting to appreciate and get into the skin of others. And so I think just applying that to animals immediately makes them feel that it’s OK to be vulnerable, and I guess that’s what I put off. I’ve known plenty of people like me, I don’t think I’m unique in that way, but let me tell you, I’m infinitely grateful for it.
Do you think that in connecting with their animals that cat guardians make the same mistakes time and again?
Time and time again. It’s incredible how consistent our mistakes are. It all really stems from the fact that cats—the life of cats, the vocabulary of cats, the way they function, the way they express themselves—it’s so foreign to humans, we just don’t get it, we don’t have any other frame of reference. So then we’re disappointed. When we’re disappointed, we get angry. So we project all these negative things on the cat. That’s our No. 1 mistake.
I just don’t think we understand that cats are more wild than they are domestic. We, in turn, are demanding companionship from a domestic standpoint from a wild animal. And then we get disappointed. So that’s my job then—to shine a very bright light on our foolishness and try to recalibrate that frame of reference.
So then, what are some simple things people can do to strengthen their bond with animals?
Learn the species, whether we’re talking about a cat, dog or hedgehog. When you’ve got a relationship with an animal or you’re striving for a relationship with an animal, you’ve got to hit the books a little bit. Hit Google and hit YouTube. It’s as if you’re getting into a new relationship with somebody and you really like them, and you want this relationship to go somewhere. You’re not just going to be 'This is a human. OK, let’s go.' You want to learn about them, about where they’re from, what their family is like, what are the experiences that shaped them.
In the new book, "Total Cat Mojo," I always try to go back to the concept of relationships. This is not ownership, this is a relationship. You’re demanding something emotionally of another. It doesn’t matter who it is. If you want love, you have to give it.
What is your favorite or most memorable episode of "My Cat From Hell?"
The finale last season [Season 10] was really special to me. That was the episode when I went to visit one of my shelter friends in Philadelphia. She very simply said 'We’re having a very hard time recruiting a new generation of volunteers to help with feral cats and doing TNR in this area, and we’re losing the battle. You have a pretty strong base, how about you show up and help?' I said, 'Let’s go.'
Getting the trust of the network to give me that full hour to go where I want to go and rescue, that was a huge deal. And then getting the trust of the people of Philadelphia—the result was pretty amazing. There’s a scene at the end, where we, after a very hard-fought couple of weeks, open up the traps and let these cats out, and the first cage was opened by a 7-year-old girl. She was so excited and so energized, I just knew that this little girl was going to grow up advocating for cats and loving them and appreciating animals. I guess it’s this point in my life where I get to reflect and say 'I did something right.' It was that episode.
What are the first steps a community needs to take to address the feral cat issue?
I think education about TNR [trap-neuter-release] is principal. But before you go into TNR, get into the community where there is the largest population of feral cats and get the community to appreciate those cats, instead of seeing them as pests. That’s the big first step. Then, get volunteers from those neighborhoods to speak to their neighbors and their friends. That level of communication is key, because you really do need an army of humans to combat this rampant overpopulation and the quality of life that winds up befalling all of these animals.
You've just got to want to do it. It may seem daunting at first, but start small. Volunteer to put food in the traps, drive cats to the clinic. You can just do something. Anything. And finally, there's the basic realization that if you love the cat in your lap, there's no reason why you don't love the cat under your car. They are cats. They are in your home, they are in your community. And they deserve your love. And even though we demonstrate it completely differently, we can still demonstrate it.
When did you start Cat Camp?
I came on board Cat Camp. My friends Christina and Simon started Cat Camp in New York. That story is pretty amazing. Christina had nothing to do with the cat community. She was walking home, she saw a cat in need. She didn't even have cats, she just picked him up, took him home and then figured it out. And within six or seven months she had inserted herself inside the cat world of New York and said 'As a business owner, how do I bring what I have to the table?' And starting Cat Camp was that thing.
I went to the first one, fell in love and immediately approached her afterwards and said 'I want in.' Now we've done two more, and Vegas is our first [outside of New York]—we've been planning this forever. Vegas has made incredible strides over the past 10 years to really dig in and solve the problem when it comes to animals, especially cats. But at the same time, we feel like we can bring something more. Working for animals is a tough job. We get to energize the base that is already there and we get to bring in the folks that just want to wear cat ears and celebrate. We're there for everybody.
What's the most important thing you want people to take away from Cat Camp?
I want them to feel awesome about cats. Whether they walk away having met new people and just celebrated this thing, that's great. And if they walk away feeling empowered to make a difference, then that's amazing too. We are here to be a celebration with a purpose. Hopefully, people will come away with both things. If that happens, I know we did our job.
How many more Cat Camps are you anticipating in the next few years?
We did two this year. My goal is to add at least one more each year. My hope is three next year. I've always envisioned Cat Camp not just being a one-off party but that we really insert ourselves into the community the span of the week. So this is our first shot at that, and a lot really depends on how Vegas goes. I want to see us succeed at this model and then we can easily bring it to other cities. The blueprint is exactly what we have in Vegas—communities that are fighting to make a difference and we can help strengthen that, and at the same time celebrate that.
I'm excited to go everywhere, I'm a born traveler. I honestly love nothing more than when I go to a new place and immediately we're all family from the second I go anywhere. I always talk about the fact that dog folk can go to the dog park, they can go to dog places, they can all mill around together and talk about all things dog. There is no cat park. This is the cat park. This is where we all get together, let our guards down, let our flags fly and have a great time.
What are some of your favorite travel destinations?
My wife and I just came back from our first vacation in a long time, we went to Spain. We've always had an incredible affinity for Spain. We hope to live there someday. It is definitely at the top of my list. In terms of the U.S., there's not a lot of places I don't like. I love Portland a lot—I'm thinking of the places at times I thought '"I could live here." Portland definitely is one of them. I love Austin, I've been there many, many times. I'm a New Yorker, and even though I live in L.A., I will always be a New Yorker and I will always miss New York. Everytime I go back, even after all these years, I feel home.
What are the most important things people should do when they travel with their pets?
I think the most important thing is, especially when you are driving with your cats or dogs, is making sure you have your travel kit ready. You have to have food, you have to have their medication, extra medication. Where are the vets along your route? Make sure your lodging is all set up. One of the things I think cat people especially don't tend to, is training their cats not to be scared in their carriers. Doing work to get your cat comfortable in their carrier is something everybody should do. Regardless of if you're traveling. Cat people do not bring their cats to the vet even as remotely as often as dogs. The reason is, we don't want to torture them. Training cats to see their carrier as a good place makes travel and the rest of their out-of-house life bearable to them.
Also, most people forget that when you're going through TSA at the airport with your cat, you have to take the cat out of the carrier—remember, you can go in a private room to do that. It can be a big deal, so train your cat to use a harness. You really need to think about every step along your travel.