They call him Cat

FREELAND – Dennis Avner is used to the stares.

He’s transforming himself into a tiger – obviously, people are going to look and wonder.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Clawlike fingernails, tattoos and green contact lenses help Dennis Cat Avner of Whidbey Island achieve his transformation into a tiger.

Strolling through an aisle of plastic pipe fittings and valves at the Ace Hardware store near his south Whidbey Island home, Avner does not escape notice.

Two white-haired couples barely conceal their shock. They gape at the man who prefers the name Cat.

Maybe it’s the black-and- orange tiger stripe tattoos that cover his head. Maybe it’s the green slit-iris contact lenses or the 18 metal mustache studs he uses to hang his whiskers on. The surgically altered cleft upper lip and catlike nose are hard to miss, too.

The onlookers whisper, shaking their heads in apparent disapproval.

He doesn’t need his scalpel-sculpted pointy cat ears to know the whispers are about him. He’s been dealing with such reactions since 1980, when his transformation began.

“It’s kind of part of the deal,” he said back at his house.

The 47-year-old has turned more than a few heads since he moved to Whidbey Island from the San Diego area in May.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Clawlike fingernails, tattoos and green contact lenses help Dennis Cat Avner of Whidbey Island achieve his transformation into a tiger.

His face already may seem familiar. He has been interviewed on national TV shows such as “Larry King Live.” He’s talked with reporters from newspapers big and small so many times he has lost track.

Cat cut short a recent radio interview that didn’t go so well.

“All they were trying to do was ridicule me,” he said. “They didn’t make the minimum IQ limit.”

Talking about media attention seemed to bore him. He didn’t bother to stifle an amazingly catlike yawn. Four large fangs and tiny, sharp-pointed dentures, combined with cheeks puffed out by silicone injections, enhanced the effect.

“Most of it really just takes up my time,” he said, with a trace of feline annoyance. “I deal with it.”

The transformation from Dennis Avner to Cat began after he got out of the Navy and his job as a submarine sonar technician.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Clawlike fingernails, tattoos and green contact lenses help Dennis Cat Avner of Whidbey Island achieve his transformation into a tiger.

It started with tattoos. Early designs included a dolphin on his chest and scales on his hands, a nod to the strong connection he feels to the “water people.”

Having been raised in Oscoda, Mich., and exposed to Huron Indian traditions, he came to realize he had an even stronger connection to cats, particularly tigers.

“It’s a very old Huron tradition of changing yourself to your animal totem,” Cat said. “There isn’t a lot of evidence (of the tradition) in the records. They didn’t have cameras then.”

He struggled to describe the feeling.

“I have a very strong, empathic bond with cats, all animals, really, but more with cats than others,” Cat said. “It’s way beyond anything verbal. I feel their emotions.”

He felt compelled to take his transformation further, but he couldn’t find a licensed surgeon who would do what he wanted.

Michael V. Martina / The Herald

Clawlike fingernails, tattoos and green contact lenses help Dennis Cat Avner of Whidbey Island achieve his transformation into a tiger.

“I had to go outside the established medical field,” he said.

He finally found someone in Phoenix who had surgical training and was willing. Together they engineered procedures to put a cleft in his upper lip and relocate the septum of his nose to push it flat against his face.

The ears took three tries to get right. In all, he went under the knife so much he lost count – 10 or 12 times, he said.

He has no idea how much money he has spent except that it is many thousands of dollars. As he saves money, he pays for other alterations.

Next, when he gets the cash, he wants to get implants in his skull for detachable cat ears.

That will have to wait until Cat gets a job. In California, he had been working as an electronics technician.

He moved to Whidbey Island with close friends Rick Weiss, 52, and Tess Calhoun, 51, when Weiss landed a job with Boeing in Everett. Weiss had been working for Boeing in Southern California.

The three had known each other only a few months but already had grown close.

“These guys are my family,” said Cat, whose two cats, Morris and Pretty Girl, live with them.

“We’re family by choice,” Calhoun said. “Not many people get to do that.”

While he’s looking for work, Cat is helping to fix up the house and unpack boxes, as well as picking plums and blackberries from the back yard for canning.

He suspects the job hunt could take a while. The rural location makes it tougher. Some bosses can’t see past his tiger-man looks.

“I generally get the ‘overqualified’ crap,” Cat said.

People can be annoying.

“Humans are constantly more difficult to communicate with” than animals, Cat said. “They very rarely say what they mean.”

Cat is blunt. Direct. Quick with a pointy smile about favorite subjects: deer – he’s a bow hunter – or his handcrafted lightsaber.

If his cigarette lighter won’t spark or he can’t think of the right word, he emits a short “grr” in frustration.

Not all people rub him wrong.

Repeat errands to the hardware store helped break the ice with employees there.

“He’s wonderful,” cashier Darnelle Campbell said.

She said her 8-year-old granddaughter was leery of Cat at first, so she introduced them. “She thought he was the nicest person she ever saw,” Campbell said.

Cat said some people tell him they wish they had the courage to pursue their own transformations.

“A lot of people are scared to follow what they feel like they need to do,” he said. “I’m proof that they can do what they want to do. You can do anything you want to do.”

Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or

On the Web

Dennis “Cat” Avner’s Web site is

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

“I have a very strong, empathic bond with cats,” Cat says. “It’s way beyond anything verbal. I feel their emotions.”

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