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February 21, 2012

Adventures in Catsterland: Fun and Friends Found on the Online Feline Social Network

Move over, Facebook! Catster is the cat's pajamas

All Animals magazine

  • Monster, aka Monster Man, Mister Monster, #@*!     Paul Bernstein

  • Newman, aka Little Boy, Newmie, Mr. Pantaloons, Sassy Pants                            Laura Strickland

by Arna Cohen

When I took the plunge into Facebook a few years ago, I was fascinated and flattered that people from every decade of my life and every branch of the family tree were popping up out of nowhere to be my friends. I’m happy to say that I’ve now accumulated 86 of them. OK, so that’s not a very big number. Almost everyone has way more friends than I. Even my cat.

Yes, you read that right—my cat. With no effort at all, my magnificent seal point Siamese, Monster, has racked up 200 furriends on Catster.com, the online feline social network. What this means for me, aside from a confused mixture of intense pride and insane jealousy, is that I no longer have time to keep up with what my friend is making for dinner or my brother’s travels in Thailand. Monster does not read, so it falls to me to update him on Harrison and Kitty Pryde’s stormy relationship, movie reviews from Da Tabbies O Trout Towne, and sales figures for Newman’s debut self-help e-book, Poopology.

Before you call the guys in the white coats, let me explain! In November 2009, I was seeking sources for an All Animals story about why cats should wear collars and tags. I thought I’d struck gold when an Internet search turned up a thread on this very subject, but there was one hitch: To contact commentators, I had to join the site hosting the forum, Catster. Or rather, my cat had to join. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. I mean, humans weren’t discussing collars and tags—the cats were. And some of them were wearing clothes. This wasn’t the kind of company I, or my cat, kept.

Not having many other options, I did what I had to for the sake of my craft. I created a profile capturing Monster’s essential characteristics: energetic, vocal, stubborn, affectionate, extremely intelligent, always hungry, and supremely self-absorbed. His motto: “It’s all about me.” Within days, I had several excellent sources, and Monster had a dozen friends.

I thought that would be the end of our involvement with the online cat community, but Monster continued to be bombarded with friend requests and virtual presents (his beautiful blue eyes draw in those felines like bees to honey). In just a few months, he had more friends than I without even leaving the house. My email was overrun with messages for him. Then he discovered diary writing, and I was sucked into the wormhole leading from the world as I’d known it to the delightful lunacy of Catsterland. 

Humans weren't discussing collars and tags - the cats were. And some of them were wearing clothes. This wasn't the kind of company I, or my cat, kept.

Monster’s first entry
I can’t complain about my life. I live in a big house with lots of stairs and open space, and the staff lets me do almost anything I want. Or I find ways to get what I want. When I wanted a really big cat tree, I simply jumped on the countertops 20 times a day for three years until one appeared. When I want a different kind of food, I just barf up whatever she’s feeding me until she switches brands. When I want a warm blankie on my chaise lounge, I shed extra hard until one is spread out. They don’t call Siamese the smartest breed for nothin’!

Monster’s diary has led me to discover some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in real or cyber life, an outgoing community of animal lovers as enthralled with their cats as I am with mine. Catster cats exchange birthday greetings, concatulations, medical and behavioral advice, and heartfelt support when a cat crosses the Rainbow Bridge.

“What I like the most … is the love that is shown for other people’s pets,” says Laura Strickland of Scottsdale, Ariz., mother of the poop-obsessed Newman—one of the most popular Catster cats with nearly 5,000 furriends. “That’s been the most support I’ve gotten when I’ve had pets pass away—the notes they’ve sent, the gifts they’ve given. You just don’t get that from other friends who don’t have animals.”

I asked Strickland why Newman is so focused on fecal matters, and she pointed to the proliferation of diary entries on the topic. “Newman just kind of latched on to it mainly because he’s young and he’s not afraid to talk about it. Whereas [his housemate] Samoa would be totally embarrassed. She doesn’t even like anyone seeing her go in the litter box.”

When socializing with non-Catster friends, Strickland tends to keep her cats’ online activities close to the vest. “They would think I’m nuts,” she says. I, on the other hand, relish the incredulous, slightly frightened expressions of my fellow party guests when I discuss Monster’s diary, which often revolves around his discontent with “the husband.” (I should note at this point that we Catster moms do not write our cats’ entries; we are simply the instruments through which our cats’ thoughts flow.)

What is he good for?
You know, it seems to me, when I am perusing my Catster friends’ diaries, that all of their moms have husbands who are loving, caring, and attentive to the cats’ needs. Why couldn’t I have gotten one like that?

Before Mom met the husband, we all used to sleep on the bed with her, but once he entered her life, that came to an end. At bedtime, Mom would have to do a sweep of the bedroom to make sure all the cats were out. Sometimes she’d miss one, and in the middle of the night, the not-yet-husband would rouse her from a sound sleep by sitting bolt upright in bed and announcing “There’s a cat in here!” Just the slight sound of self-grooming was enough to make him all Princess and the pea. She would have to get out of bed and evict a perfectly happy feline from our rightful place.

I accept that the husband is not going away, but I tell you, fur friends, some days I just do not know how to cope.

Catster.com came into the world in August 2004, about eight months after its fraternal twin, Dogster.com. The sites have expanded beyond simple photo-sharing to include diaries, contests, pet news, expert advice, and community-moderated forums. Through a partnership with Petfinder.com, cats and dogs available for adoption are also featured.

Join in the chitchat with our guide to Catster Chat »

Today, more than 200,000 cats in dozens of countries belong to Catster. The site’s camaraderie has been a refuge for Felicity Goodrich, who found her Facebook account overrun by political discussions during the 2008 presidential election. “My first reaction was … ‘What a lovely idea! Cats don’t have politics,’ ” says the Folsom, Calif., resident. Goodrich is especially touched by the way Catsters come together in a crisis, getting the word out about missing cats and raising money to help with veterinary bills and other issues.

Monster keeps his political opinions to himself, but he has no qualms about expressing his point of view on just about every other topic. Nothing is sacred, not even his own mother.

Cat fur—live with it!
My friend Lucy wrote in her diary that her mom bought a new vacuum cleaner with a pet hair attachment—not for the floors, for the pets! Now, I know Lucy’s mom would never in 1,000 years consider trying to vacuum the cat fur right off their backs.

I’ve seen clips on YooToob of cats that enjoy this particular form of torture—they must be masocats. I can’t imagine any self-respecting cat or any cat-respecting hoomin engaging in such brutality.

Then there’s my mom. She, too, had seen the video clips and thought the idea had merit. Perhaps vacuuming the cats would reduce the husband’s obsessive-compulsive use of the beater bar on the floor. Hmmm, she thought, Monster follows the husband around when he’s vacuuming. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of it. Maybe he might enjoy having his fur sucked up. Worth a try.

Oh, no, she didn’t! Oh, yes, she did!! She held me in her arms and persuaded the husband to turn the attachment on me. To his credit, the husband was very dubious and warned Mom about what might happen. To her, not to me.

The husband was right, for once. And Mom has the scars to prove it.

For all his whining about the husband, Monster has been determined in one way or another to convert my dog-adoring spouse into a cat person. With games of fetch and cute yoga poses, Monster leads him oh, so close, but then he does something unadvisable, like scratching the entire surface of the husband’s brand new desk. Then one day, Monster had this to say in his diary:

He loves me! He really loves me!
Oh, furriends, Tuesday was a red-letter day in my house. As you know, the husband is definitely not a cat person and pretty much puts up with us for the sake of Mom.

The husband pets me, picks me up, cuddles me, lets me stand in his lap when he’s on the computer, yet he could only bring himself to say he “likes me a lot.” (Ladies, how many times have you heard that from men?) On the flip side, he makes me sleep in the basement at night, yells at me when I get on the counters, and accuses me of having fleas!

On Tuesday, there was a story in USA Today written by a man who had reluctantly adopted a Siamese kitten to make his girlfriend happy, grew to love him, and after 10 years of happiness had to put Sinatra to sleep because of cancer. When the husband read this and looked at the pictures of Sinatra, he teared up and finally admitted to mom that HE LOVES ME and would be very upset if anything happened to me! Mom made him say it twice! The husband told her not to go overboard.

And there was joy in Catsterland. 

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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