Q&A with Vanessa Gadberry

Minneapolis's own Internet cat celeb talks about the festival, her tattoo, and why cats are better than dogs.

Vanessa Gadberry and Fennec
Photo by Cameron Wittig

Two of the greatest achievements of Minnesota cultural camp take center stage in August: the Minnesota State Fair and the 2014 Internet Cat Video Festival. Last year, these celebrations of all things lowbrow and wonderful joined together for one brief, beautiful moment that gave us an amazingly regal cat butter sculpture, an opportunity to break away for mini-donuts when the cat-vid warm-up acts dragged, and yet another fun weird thing to do at the Fair. Alas, the partnership was not meant to last. The cat video fest is back home in Walker Art Center’s Open Field, where thousands of people will gather to watch Internet videos of internationally famous cats such as Fennec Fox the Kittenface of Minneapolis, who has her own Facebook page. Fennec follows in the paw prints of the late Squirrel, memorialized on cat love Vanessa Gadberry’s chest. Here, she talks about the festival being back at the Walker, her tattoo, and why cats are better than dogs.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Internet Cat Video Festival? 
I’m really excited that it’s back at the Walker. Last year, it didn’t have the same magic as the first year because, at the Walker, you get to sit on the grass with all these blankets and everyone can come and go and intermingle. Last year it felt very much like you were at some sort of school event where everyone was seated and you don’t get to move. So I’m very excited for it to be back at the Walker and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I don’t feel like I’ve been paying attention to too many cat videos this year, but who knows. I kind of feel like it’s all been done before. They’ve had Grumpy, they’ve had Lil Bub, they’ve had different cat video owners, so I’m excited to see what happens this year. I think it will still be great sans cat celebrities, because the biggest part of it is just being around a bunch of strangers and laughing at the same video that you’ve already seen online, but somehow it’s funnier in the presence of strangers.

Why do you think cat videos have become such a phenomenon?
I think there’s an element of surprise in cats when they do crazy things, because everyone expects them to be low key and aloof. Everyone loves dogs. Dogs are great, you can bring dogs with you everywhere, and everyone knows how outgoing and nice dogs are. And I think cats previously had this, “Oh, cats only sit inside and they sulk and they sleep and they hate everyone,” which is true for some cats. But cat videos are like, “Oh my gosh, look at this hilarious cat I found. You have to see it,” and because of the share-ability of it, it’s picked up speed. Or maybe everyone just secretly loves cats. They don’t want to admit it, but they’re all cat people.

How do you feel about the term “cat people” or “cat lady”? Sometimes it’s seen as a negative word. 
I’m super fine with it. I have a cat tattooed on my chest, so at this point, if I was embarrassed about cats, I’d probably put myself in a tough position. But I think I just started embracing it and laughing about it. It doesn’t offend me and I think it’s funny when other people say it trying to offend me. And I’m just like, “Nope, you’re just building up this ridiculous persona I have going.” So keep contributing.

Your cat Squirrel passed away recently, and you decided to honor her memory by getting a picture of her tattooed on your chest. Tell me more about that process.
It took six months. Ben Rettke of Identity Tattoo did one, four-hour session every month to allow for healing. I kind of always knew I would have cat tattoos, but after she passed, I was like, OK, I just want to do this now. I don’t want to wait. It became part of my grieving process, which was very therapeutic. The first few sessions, I would cry because I was emotional and it made me think about Squirrel.

You obviously cared very deeply for Squirrel, but so did her Facebook followers. How did she become a local cat celebrity in the first place?
We would go places and people would ask about her. I wanted to give them a place to go and continue the experience online, because people got so attached to her when we would go out. She was a little white cat and she wasn’t scared of anyone or anything. She greeted everyone; she would convert dog people. She was on a crusade for cats. I ended up making business cards for her, too, that pointed to her Facebook page. Once Squirrel died, those followers ended up transitioning over to my cat Fennec’s page. It’s weird because even though Fennec doesn’t necessarily go out, she has thousands more fans. Fennec is a lot like Squirrel; she has such a personality. I think a lot of the fans enjoyed what the Squirrel posts brought to their world and they found that in the Fennec posts. They’ve just been gathering on that page.

You also have a cat named Zorro. Does he ever feel left out?
No, not at all. When I bring him outside, he tries to body slam the door to get back inside. He wants nothing to do with the outdoors. When I first adopted him, he was 3, and he was very shy and didn’t have much human interaction. It took him a few years to open up to us, and now he’s at the point where he will come out when strangers are over, sometimes he will even want to be pet, but he’s a very proper cat who is very dignified and often gives you the look of disapproval. I think he’s pretty happy when no one is messing with him.

What is it about cats that, in your mind, make them such good pets?
I think it’s because we all know cats don’t have to like us. Dogs are hardwired, no matter what you do, to love humans. Cats, on the other hand, will look at you like, “Nope, I remember what you did the other night when you shoved me off the couch.” I think that’s why cats are so interesting, because when they do come to you, you feel special and you think the cat loves you. There’s something calming about a happy cat, and something amazing about a pissed off cat. It’s like no other experience.