Who knew he had it in him? Garfield—that famous (and famously self-centered) cartoon cat, who’s been known to spar with his canine housemate Odie and torture his owner Jon—actually cares about his fellow creatures.
The proof? He’s lending his considerable marketing mojo to the Shelter Pet Project, an initiative backed by The HSUS, Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council that aims to make people aware of the awesomeness awaiting them at their local animal shelters. Having previously conquered the funny pages (“Garfield” is the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip) as well as movies, TV and all manner of merchandise, Garfield began appearing in Shelter Pet Project videos and public service announcements in 2015, urging people to find their new best friends by adopting from a shelter.
It might seem like Garfield has always been with us, but he actually sprang from the mind and pen of cartoonist Jim Davis, who launched the character in 1978. In this edited interview with James Hettinger of Animal Sheltering magazine, Davis reflects on Garfield, Odie and the other pets in his life—and why he’s using his talents to help end pet homelessness.
How did you decide to get Garfield and Odie involved in the Shelter Pet Project?
It was such a perfect fit for the characters. Both Garfield and Odie were abandoned by their owners—Garfield was left to fend for himself in an Italian restaurant before he was eventually adopted by Jon Arbuckle, and Odie was left behind by his owner, Jon’s former roommate, Lyman. (There are various theories on what became of Lyman.) The characters have enjoyed all the comforts of home, and they hope to help their fellow pets enjoy the same.
What do you think the characters can offer to help the cause?
Because they’re animated and colorful, they can capture the audience’s attention. Because they’re funny, they can deliver an important message with a bit of humor. And because they’re pets, they can relate to the plight of the shelter pet.
You once said in an interview that Garfield’s appearances on merchandise teach you about the character by putting him outside his comic strip setting. Have you learned anything new about Garfield’s personality by lending him to the Shelter Pet Project videos and graphics? (It does seem like he’s being a little less self-centered than usual!)
Yes, it’s true; Garfield is not always so altruistic! But working on this project, I learned that Garfield and Odie genuinely do care about cats and dogs. Now, while it’s true Garfield’s had some harsh words about dogs, he recognizes that he and Odie are lucky to be members of a loving household, and he believes all pets should have the same good fortune.
What kinds of animals were you exposed to growing up, and how did those experiences shape your cartoon creations? Are any of the characters based on pets you had in real life?
I grew up on a farm, and there were always about 25 barn cats roaming around. I was fascinated by their different personalities and temperaments. They were all very aloof and independent. We also raised milch cows and I had a few I named, but obviously, they weren’t really pets. Garfield is pretty much an amalgam of all the cats I remembered from my childhood.
How did you decide on an orange tabby for Garfield?
The first time I was asked this, I was surprised, because in my mind, all cats are orange. Of course, I know they’re not, but for some reason that ginger color just stuck in my mind and I filed it under “this is the color of a cat.”