People notice when Jackson Galaxy walks into a room. His arms are festooned with tattoos, his beard is carefully stylized, his horn-rimmed glasses are perched on his nose like an ungainly bird. But the folk that really pay attention are the cats.
Galaxy hosts Animal Planet’s series, “My Cat From Hell,” in which he whispers, cajoles and outsmarts the most ferocious of feline pets.
It’s a calling for Galaxy (who was born Richard Kirschner). Morphing into an expert cat wrangler is something he never dreamed of. He longed to be a musician from the time he was 9 years old. But a cat changed his life.
Galaxy had been living in Boulder, Colorado, for 15 years pursuing a career as a musician and doing volunteer work in animal shelters. “Did I expect to be there for 15 years? Absolutely not,” he said.
“I expected a year maybe but the thing that happened with the shelter and the animals kept me there. I went there for the music and stayed there for the cats.”
It was one particular cat, Benny, who turned Galaxy’s life around. For those 15 years he’d been nursing a drug and alcohol habit. “It was at the point when my alcoholism and drug addiction bottomed,” he said.
“I had alienated everybody I knew, including family, and had lost everything. And I was miserable and mentally I was absolutely bonkers. I overdosed three separate times. It was the one time in my life when I had nothing in terms of having faith in anything. When you lose that there’s no point.”
One day at the shelter he saw a woman dump a cat in front of the building. He caught up with her and confronted her. “He’d gotten hit by a car and his pelvis was broken,” Galaxy recalled.
“She said he was an ‘unbondable’ cat. When she used that word I realized that that’s me. So as I’m driving him to the hospital to get him patched back up, I looked into the carrier and it was one of those moments when I realized how broken I was by looking at how broken he was. It was a hard left, and my work with him over the next 13 years really mirrored the work I was doing on myself.
“He was a really challenging cat, very difficult, but it kept me humble. In a way he was sort of a symbol. He saved me.”
Galaxy said he pulled himself out of his stupor, began attending meetings. “I’ve never been one to consciously contemplate suicide or anything like that, but what you’re doing in that respect is you’re killing yourself. You’re just not doing it consciously; you’re doing it in the name of a good time,” he said.
“I took on Benny as a project where he became this sort of mirror that I realized if I did want to commit to this path, I needed to be present for the animals in order to work with them. They can totally tell.
“If you come to an animal and you’re loaded, they know. Plus it was him. And I had a few others in my life, and all the animals I was responsible for — and this is a very common story among addicts — when they bottom, the only thing they have left is their cat, their dog. They’re the only thing that gave them unconditional love. Everyone else is gone. I know so many addicts who came back because they thought, ‘Who’s going to take care of my dog?’ It’s the only shred of connection to the world that we have left. It’s the same story for me except mine was Benny, and all of them. I’d become so entrenched in the world of animal welfare and saving animals that I stuck around. I don’t think I would’ve otherwise, I really don’t.”
He moved to Los Angeles hoping to vitalize his music career. But fate interfered again.
“I was teaching a class at a pet store about cats and this guy came to see me and he liked my presence and what I had to say, and within a couple weeks we were filming the sizzle reel and it got sold. I didn’t go out there looking for it. I wanted to be in music. Here I grew up thinking I want to be a rock star, and all of a sudden — anybody who knew me from the age of 10 thought I was a musician. All of a sudden you don’t see me for a couple of years, and all of a sudden I’m ‘The Cat Guy.’ It’s funny how the world works.”
Married for three years to Minoo Rahbar, a strong animal advocate too, Galaxy said she helps keep him grounded. While he had no intention of marrying, he met Minoo in the right place at the right time, he said.
“The TV thing was taking off and here was somebody who couldn’t care less. And we shared a very deep connection and spiritual connection with animals. You talk about fate, her coming to me at that moment made sure that whatever happened from that point on, I had one foot on the ground. She’s an incredibly grounding force for me. She doesn’t care about any of the celebrity stuff, she just cares about animals.”
The two of them share five indoor cats, four feral cats that live in the garage, three dogs and two turtles. “We have a family and love every moment of it,” he said.