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And You Thought Human TV Stars Could Be Catty

OK, so it's really a long commercial for pet food. But all the contestants on this Animal Planet mini-`show' will be adopted from shelters.

July 16, 2006|Lisa Anderson | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — This is a tale of 10 kitties: Jo from St. Louis, Ellis from Portland, Belle from Philadelphia, Molly from Houston, Bambi from New York, Sam from Dallas, Opry from Nashville, Romeo from Los Angeles, Cisco from Miami and Zen from Chicago.

Drawn from animal shelters around the country, these homeless cats are scratching out three minutes of feline fame this summer on cable television's Animal Planet channel in what is being billed as the first "cat reality show."

Yes, cat reality. With human contestants wolfing down bugs, submitting to liposuction and generally humiliating themselves before millions of viewers every week, some people already think so-called reality TV has gone to the dogs. So why not the cats?

Called "The Meow Mix House," based on the lavishly decorated, glass-walled "house" the producers created in a Madison Avenue storefront here, the show presents cats entering -- or sometimes refusing to enter -- competitions in such pursuits as climbing, purring and catching toy mice. Each week, a la "Survivor," judges will boot one puss off the show. When Belle from Philadelphia declined to climb, she became the first kitty casualty.

In the final episode, to be shown Aug. 18, the last cat left meowing will be named Feline Vice President of Research and Development for the Meow Mix Co., the petfood company sponsoring the show. His or her duties will include taste testing. A second winner, which also will receive a yet-to-be decided executive title at Meow Mix, will be determined by viewers' online voting at www.meowmixhouse.com.

In truth, the "show," which appears Friday nights for three minutes in the 6 p.m. PDT hour of Animal Planet, amounts to a clever commercial for Meow Mix. But it is a commercial with compassion. There are no losers: All the cats are guaranteed a home and a year's supply of Meow Mix. And cat adoption is stressed in every episode.

The show played to packed windows on Madison Avenue, where the cats took up residence June 13-23 with webcams following their every paw lick, hiss and hairball.

"It's fantastic. It's just so nice to be able to see cats having a good time," said Renee Gaslow, a Manhattan gemologist, peering into the house on a recent afternoon. "And they get along. That's what I'm amazed at." She turned away just as Molly, a gray and white kitten, took a claws-out swipe at 5-year-old Cisco.

Meanwhile, Bambi, the calico New Yorker, slept through that and everything else -- as she did for most of 10 days, according to her keepers -- nestled among the pink satin boudoir pillows piled on the living room's leopard print sofa. Nearby, Zen, a fluffy, white 1-year-old from Chicago, sprawled sleepily on an abstract orange print rug, just beside a plump, upholstered ottoman. Despite all the fabulous fabrics used in the decor, furniture shredding by the residents appeared minimal.

Zen, by the way, is a stage name. His real name is Jasper. "His story is typical. Somebody found him running around the streets in their neighborhood," said Sister Marijon Binder. While with the Sisters of St. Joseph, she founded Chicago's Touched by an Animal organization 25 years ago to help the elderly keep their pets and place those pets that need adoption when their owners can no longer care for them. Binder, who currently is caring for 63 cats in her home, said that, so far, the show hadn't brought her group much in the way of donations or adoptions.

Jasper has a new home with Helen Lyon, 61, a hospital dietitian in Naperville, Ill. Still recovering from the death last year of one of her two cats, Lyon first spotted Jasper on June 4 at the Angels With Tails Walking Tour sponsored by Chicago's Pets Are Worth Saving, or PAWS, on Michigan Avenue. "As soon as I saw him, I said, 'Oh, my gosh, is he cute!' I got so excited. I filled out an application," she recalled.

But she was astonished to hear that the adoption had to be postponed because Jasper was due in New York to appear in a cat reality show. The original Zen was disqualified for sneezing, Binder said. Because all the food dishes and other items already were personalized with Zen's name, Jasper assumed the alias.

During daylight hours, the Meow Mix House cats mostly dozed. The ASPCA representatives present 24 hours a day looked like they could use a catnap themselves. Nonetheless, they filed daily reports on their charges, checking for such things as coughing, sneezing, runny noses, ear infections, mites, scabs, urinary-tract problems and any behavioral or emotional changes.

In terms of the house, Meow Mix did not skimp on interior design -- or Meow Mix. At the entrance was a patio with a bistro table and chair set and snack bowls. In the "backyard," wicker chairs cozied up to a cocktail table laden with nut dishes filled with food.

Attorney Richard Kaplan said he often stopped to watch the cats. But, he added, "I never actually see them eating."

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