Can a brand dedicated to a new kind of pet ownership stand up to deep-rooted stereotypes?
An overjoyed golden retriever bounds up a mountain path with his human and no one bats a lash. Someone brings a pit bull mix to patio brunch and it’s par for the course. Dogs are the go-to, to-go pet—we all accept this.
Which probably explains all the stares while walking my leashed cat on a nature trail in southwest Atlanta. Folks can tolerate online photos of surfing cats all damn day, but toss an IRL feline in a ferret harness out into the wild and in front of unsuspecting hikers and—welp.
“We guessed this would happen,” co-founder and editor in chief of AdventureCats Laura Moss says, nodding to the gawking wayfarers.
“It always does,” says Cody Wellons, AdventureCats co-founder and art director, and Moss’s husband. The couple is remarkably upbeat, unperturbed by the darting, suddenly feral animal tangling himself in shrubbery at our feet.
Together, Moss and Wellons steer the website AdventureCats, an effort to help cats “live nine lives to the fullest,” get more cats adopted, and end the negative stigmas associated with cat ownership. Moss says it was internet-famous cats like rock-climbing Millie that stirred her initial interest. “I was curious how people trained their cats to do that, and I couldn’t really find a resource that would teach anything beyond basic leash training and harnessing,” she says. Although it still turns heads, cat leashing has been a certified trend since at least 2011, according to The New York Times. (Even longer if you trust my dad’s childhood memory of a neighbor walking hers regularly in 1960s Sarasota, Florida.) AdventureCats lays out a comprehensive guide for leash training and, perhaps more important, provides literature to help people evaluate their cat’s adventure aptitude. Moss and Wellons, who have two cats, personally stick mainly with front-yard adventures. They didn’t start leash training early enough to optimize their pets’ adventure potential, a crucial aspect in improving the odds that one’s cat will enjoy the outdoors.
My (previously) indoor-only cat, Kevin Arnold Gates Grimm, is a little over a year old and always trying to pop out the screen window or munch a floral arrangement. Interpreting this as a sign that Kevin was looking for a little more outdoor action in his life, I deemed him adventure-ready. I borrowed a harness and leash from friends and we started training about two weeks before our hike with Moss and Wellons. In a few days, Kevin was readily stepping into the harness. Unfortunately, even after some patient practice, he explored the outdoors with a tenuous, shaky gait—he looked like a stoned person navigating a bumpy boat ride.
“That’s what cats do when they feel threatened or unsure,” Moss says, pointing to Kevin’s tail as he drags it through dead leaves and dirt like an animated, Gothic Swiffer. He eventually gathers his courage and makes his way into a ravine, simultaneously freeing himself from the harness. With Moss and Wellons’ patient help, we get him strapped back in safely and continue the hike—much of which, admittedly, Kevin spends perched on my shoulder. “Cats definitely call the shots,” Moss says. She and Wellons say that goes for cats’ feelings about adventures in general. Sometimes they’re just not feeling it—a fact you can recognize by knowing and reading your cat.
Photo by Dustin Chambers
Although nervous overall, Kevin is also definitely feeling the adventure spirit some of the time. He takes in the surroundings and crisp autumn air with wide yellow eyes, riding in my arms or trotting on his own. It turns out to be an enlightening afternoon. Kevin is still a young cat with energy to burn—energy that he usually channels into what I call “the zooms,” when he sprints a straight line throughout my one-bedroom apartment. Hikes and general adventuring might be a viable option for helping him get the physical exercise he clearly needs. I’m amazed to witness Kevin gradually take to the new experience.
But then again, I’m already a cat lover and owner. I don’t need further convincing.
Moss says she hopes AdventureCats’s efforts can show those considering pet adoption that dogs aren’t the only animals capable of adventure. Cats can get a bad rap. From Garfield to Grumpy Cat (seriously, this cat isn’t even impressed with his own waxwork), pop culture paints feline friends as lazy or contemptuous. For a prospective pet owner with hankering to hike, camp, or surf, that can be a big factor against choosing a cat companion.
A survey PetSmart conducted last spring revealed that almost half of participants bought into the “crazy cat lady” stereotype tied to cat ownership. Not only does that nonsensically assign a gender to a pet preference, but the “crazy” modifier also adds an unflattering light. It’s hard to forget one of the earliest pop-cultural representations of the crazy cat lady, Eleanor Abernathy from The Simpsons. Eleanor first appeared on the animated series in 1989, according to this fan-made IMDb entry, characterized by incoherent babble and a collection of cats swarming her body. As a single woman myself, I admit I have personally held off on acquiring additional cats for fear of embodying the stereotype. It’s a shame. The same PetSmart survey reports that 71 percent of participants acknowledged the stereotype as an outdated notion—though their other responses and the perpetuation of certain memes—like this famous 2011 fake eHarmony video—show we still have a lot of work to do.
And what about the dudes? Cats have long been associated with female-identifying people, but of course feline love spans the gender spectrum. Comedian Michael Showalter’s 2013 book, Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too: A Guide for Men and Their Cats tackles the subject of single male-identifying cat owners. Please recall Garfield’s mopey mister, Jon Arbuckle, and his long run of failures in dating (until finally ensnaring his vet after 27 years of asking her out). According to the trope, the cat man is a lonely and desperate individual, completely disregarding legendary tough dude Ernest Hemingway’s polydactyl-loving legacy. Although he’s clearly approaching the topic in jest, Showalter tackles questions that many men have seriously considered. For example, “If I get a cat, will I ever get laid again?” It sounds like a ridiculous question because it is; many people I spoke with cited cat ownership, regardless of gender identity, as a bonus when gauging a person’s dateability.
“After I adopted the cats, my friend I adopted them from suggested that owning these cats would actually get me laid,” my friend Brad says about his two critters. Moss says AdventureCats’ social media presence lends further validation to that claim. “When we post a girl with a cat, it gets tons of likes and comments, but they’re never like the comments we get on men,” she says. “All these women … are like, ‘How did you find him?’ ‘Where can I get one?’ They get so excited about men snuggling cats.” A quick scroll through AdventureCats’ official Instagram account, which boasts 22,900 followers, certainly confirms Moss’s assertion, with comments under pictures of adventurous men with their felines like “Can I have both please?” Other organizations have also taken note of fast-changing attitudes toward male cat ownership: Kittendales, a calendar featuring men (including Lance Bass) posed with cats, donates proceeds to Hull Seaside Animal Rescue in Massachusetts.
Photo by Dustin Chambers
Post-hike, Kevin clamors into his carrier without complaint. He rides peacefully in the car and, immediately upon returning home, melts his furry little body into the couch. He’s wiped out and, judging by the effusive purrs, blissed out, too. The day has been an educational experience, presenting another opportunity for Kev and I to get out of the house and into nature—crucial, probably, for us both.
With AdventureCats, adventurous cats and cat lovers can strive toward something bigger than the stereotypes: a new, proud, outdoorsy kind of cat ownership. “If you can’t openly wave your love for cats, that’s just a terrible thing, and I think it also does hurt adoption rates,” Moss says. “If you want to be a crazy cat man and have nine cats and take care of them, I think you should do that and be damn proud of it.”