Jackson Galaxy, the American host of TV show My Cat From Hell, was in Hong Kong recently to meet owners and their pets as part of an Asia and Australia tour. He spoke to Natasha Rogai about the show and his life.
What is a cat behaviorist and how did you become one?
“I’ve stopped people calling me a cat behaviorist. I don’t know what a behaviorist is. It’s like saying you’re a human behaviorist! So I just say I’m the Cat Daddy now. I’m a cat therapist, I suppose - and I’m also a translator; I try to teach humans what it is that all cats need and specifically what their cat needs. It’s family therapy, sitting in the middle of warring parties and trying to make peace.
“I started working in an animal shelter back in the early ’90s. I was just trying to find a way to support my musical career. Within weeks, everyone noticed that the cats were coming to me. With lots of cats dying in the shelter, anything I could do to make them more adoptable or just bring some peace to them I was very willing to do.”
Then you started going to people’s homes.
“People would call the shelter and say, ‘I’m at the end of my rope, I’m done. I’m bringing the cat in.’ So I went to my boss and said, ‘Why don’t we send me out there and see if we can do something quick. So I’d go to people’s homes and I realised how simple it was. It wasn’t just a matter of your cat peeing on your pool table, it was a matter of you taking it personally. So I’d go over and sometimes it was just 15 minutes. Our return rate went down, our adoption rate went up and our euthanasia rate went down. Then I started taking it to different shelters and to this day, that is still what I do - when I’m not working on the show, everything is about shelter work.”
How did My Cat From Hell come about?
Basically, when you move to Los Angeles, and you look like me, and you work with cats, at some point somebody’s going to go, ‘We’ve got to do a show!’”
Some people don’t like cats because they don’t love you like dogs do. Do cats love you?
“The biggest problem I face is people looking at cats through dog-coloured glasses. They’re not dogs! They have four legs and they live in your house - that’s it! I also don’t believe in ‘cat person, dog person’. I call myself bi-petual. There’s no way I could spend all day with cats and not go home to a dog - I want to be worshipped a little bit!
“Cats can form very strong bonds, they just don’t express it the way dogs do. One of the things I love about cats is they really do embody a very zen approach to love, they do love you but they’re not attached to the outcome of showing that affection. That doesn’t work for humans all that much. We have a lot of attachment - we’re not very zen when it comes to love! We now know that cats are starting to change their genetic make-up and become more dog-like. I find that quite sad - I like them in their raw, wild state. I like having to work for the relationship.”
Can cats be trained?
“Again, it’s not programmed in them to obey or to care about pleasing us. So you have to speak to their motivations, which most of the time is food. If you control the food supply, you control the cat - or any wild animal. But I think that humans need [the cat being trained] more than the cats do. They like the feeling that ‘I control this relationship’. It’s an illusion - but it works! To me it’s no different from human relationships. I just got married a couple of years ago, and now I get it: you have to at all times have your partner know that you are meeting in the middle.”
Is there a different approach to cats in Asia?
“In the States people just say, ‘I hate cats’. In fact, people come up to me in the street all the time and say, ‘I hate cats, but I love your show’, which I find really weird! Here, people will admit much more to what underlies ‘I hate cats’, which is ‘I’m afraid of cats’. If when you were three years old you got scratched, you ‘hate cats’ or you’re afraid of them. That’s something which is very easy to work with. But you’ve got to admit it first. There is no cat (apart from a few of the cats on my show who are just a little unbalanced) that will walk into a room, spot you and charge you like a rhino. If you allow a cat to walk into a room and keep your hands down by your side and just allow them to explore you, nine times out of ten you’re going to be successful.”
You’ve been open about having gone through struggles with addiction. How important were animals in those difficult times?
“I’d be dead. No doubt. I swear to you, I’m not being dramatic - I’d be dead. I wrote about it in the book, Cat Daddy, that that one cat, Benny, opened my eyes to the fact that if I wanted to be that person to help cats, I had to be clean in order to do the work. I’ve known so many addicts over the years who, in the depth of their disease - just like me - where you feel yourself blacking out, you know that you’re in trouble and the first thought you have is, ‘Who’s going to take care of my dog?’. You’ve alienated everybody but there is one source of unconditional love and you feel guilty for abandoning that animal.”
In Asia, cats are still regarded as food by some people. “Oh I know. I met this wonderful guy in Jakarta … When we gave him a space at my event, his sign was “Say No to Cat Meat”. My wife and I have very different approaches. She is an animal activist and when you hear those two words, the person you think of - that’s her! I’ve always been a diplomat. You know, it’s funny – I’ve never said this in an interview before – when I was a kid, my mom’s friends nicknamed me Kissinger, because I was always trying to stop the kids from fighting. So that’s what I do all the time.”
Season 7 of My Cat From Hell starts on 20 April, at 9pm in Hong Kong, on Animal Planet