Animal behaviorist Kristina Wilson’s first foray into cat companionship was very nearly her last.
During her junior year of college, Wilson’s roommate brought home a silvery gray tabby who’d gotten the name Walkie Talkie from her previous owner, a painter, due to her raspy little meows and predilection for walking in his fresh paints. Wilson, who was vigorously allergic to cats at the time, tried to avoid her furry new pal’s affections to no avail. “She wanted to sleep with me and be in my room and just be with me all the time,” Wilson tells us as we sit in her East Village apartment surrounded by her clowder of kitties. “And I really liked her, but I was coughing all the time.”
As college kids are wont to do, Wilson ignored her mounting health problems until things got, well, a little gross, and she was forced to go to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with walking pneumonia and given intravenous antibiotics. By the time the ordeal had passed, Wilson was no longer allergic to Walkie Talkie — or to any of the countless cats she’s rescued, fostered, studied, or adopted in the years since.
Wilson’s blossoming friendship with Walkie Talkie, who eventually came to be known simply as Kitty, unlocked something in the young photographer that she didn’t know had been missing. “I learned so much from her,” Wilson says. “She taught me how to be affectionate with pets and people; I learned so much from her about body language and communication and just being open with animals and people. It really opened me up in a lot of ways.”
Wilson and Kitty lived together for several more years, until Wilson moved to Finland to pursue her graduate studies in photography. It seemed unfair to bring a cat to Europe, so Kitty moved to the suburbs of Virginia to live with Wilson’s parents, who soon discovered they loved cats too. Once Wilson returned to NYC, she didn’t want to make Kitty give up the spacious house and backyard she’d grown to love, so the feline formerly known as Walkie Talkie spent her golden years being doted upon by her human grandparents, romping outside, and chatting away until the ripe old age of 16.
As an accomplished photographer, Wilson never thought she could – or would – pursue cat behavior as a career. Slowly but surely, every cat Wilson interacted with pushed her to pursue the dream she didn’t know she had.
Once Wilson was settled back in New York City, she was ready to rejoin the ranks of cat companions. In addition to pet-sitting and dog- walking, she worked with local rescue groups and the Animal Care Centers of NYC to help socialize feral cats. “Back then, in the early 2000s, nobody was teaching you how to do this, so I just kind of figured out how to sit quietly with the cats and let them get to know me and let them do it on their own time,” Wilson says.
One night a friend came over to find Wilson sitting stock still in the middle of her living room, her hands outstretched and covered in goopy turkey-flavored baby food while a feral cat cowered behind her sofa. (Wilson has been a vegetarian for most of her life.) These and other techniques she picked up through trial and error and networking with other rescuers helped her successfully socialize a number of cats; she kept one named Muffin, then added another named Emmi to the pack a few years later.
For many, it’s hard to believe there is a whole field of study dedicated to animal behavior. However, if we take the time to learn more about how other living beings navigate the world, the more we learn about everything.
Meanwhile, Wilson worked steadily as a sought-after fashion and beauty photographer for magazines and agencies around the globe. She frequently incorporated animals into her shoots, whether it was her own cats sneaking onto set or using a farm sanctuary as a shooting location, but helping animals was never a career goal in and of itself. However, in the past five years or so, social media clout became more of a factor in getting professional photo assignments than craft or years of experience. All too frequently, social media “shout-outs” were offered in lieu of payment. Still, it took a long time for Wilson to consider switching careers at all.
Wilson says being a photographer was her whole identity. “I just did cat work on the side to give back and to be of service, and it’s something just for me, but it was never something I thought that I could do as a job.” In 2018, she applied to Hunter College Animal Behavior and Conservation Program on a whim the week before applications were due; she is currently completing her Master’s thesis on “the effect of fluorescent light flicker on the stress behavior of shelter dogs.” She also works as a freelance cat behaviorist and offers clients advice on everything from litterbox problems to socializing chilly kitties on her website, cattitude-adjustment.com.
What some laypeople may not realize is that animal behavior falls under the umbrella of psychology, and while psychologists study animals to learn about humans, the reverse is also true. Having a cat — even a cat you adopt from a shelter, even having multiple cats — isn’t usually as demanding and all-encompassing as rescuing, socializing, and/or fostering cats.
For Wilson, helping cats has allowed greater compassion for all living beings, including people.
Wilson’s cat crew has waxed and waned over the years as pregnant mama cats arrive; bottle babies are weaned and adopted out; and others shuffle off this mortal coil. At the time of this writing, Wilson and her wife Ally share their duplex apartment in the East Village with 10 cats, along with three foster cats: a sleek black cat called Mama and her two kittens, a mirror image named Shadow and the stripy, perpetually surprised Ghost, who are on their way to their forever home imminently.
Steve B., a 12-year-old black- and-white cat named after actor Steve Buscemi due to the somewhat bulging eyes he had as a kitten, rules the roost; Wilson, who’s had him since he was two days old, refers to him as her “number one guy” and has been documenting his hijinks on Instagram, @thedailysteveb, since 2016. During the pandemic, Wilson decided to experiment with teaching her cats to use speech buttons, as seen on speech pathologist Christina Hunger’s @hunger4words Instagram account, with Stella the talking dog (featured in Drool issue 04). Steve B. learned how to use the speech buttons in four days or so, and has since gone viral on TikTok with his demands to be let in the yard (“outside!” ) or for “snuggles,” “kittynip,” or “snacks” from his human companions. Wilson now offers an interactive online training course for humans curious about teaching their cats to use speech buttons on talktothebeans.com.
The other cats in the household include a female mini-Steve named Babby, whose given name Kuu means “moon” in Finnish, and who has her own Instagram account, @tinykittenfeminist; the weird sibling trio Beverly, Pam, and Uncle Dad (so named because he knocked up both of his sisters), who mostly hide with Little Marvin; Kevin, a former street cat with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) who came by Wilson’s yard to visit the kittens he’d fathered, and eventually realized an indoor life meant delicious treats and endless belly rubs; Mimi, who is 12 years old and is a great enforcer of rules, always ready to dole out a whapping or a hiss despite her lymphoma, for which she is receiving chemo; Kitten Man, a burly 3-year-old who loves to hunt; and 18-year-old Samba, an incontinent gentleman who spends his days snoozing in the sunshine or in a llama-shaped bed, with nary a thought to the owners who gave him up a few years ago to move abroad.
When asked why she went from an everyday cat owner to someone passionate about helping animals, Wilson has a thoughtful response: “The desire to work with animals comes a lot from past trauma, that dealing with animals tends to be a lot easier than dealing with people,” she explains. “People who have dealt with past trauma also tend to want to help others, because they’ve been in a situation where they needed help and they didn’t get it, or whatever. So, they want to help people have a voice or help those who are in need. But they have a tendency — at least the people who end up working with animals [do] — to not want to put that towards people or find it more difficult to deal with people. I think that’s probably true for me; I wanted to be of service. I wanted to have pets, but I also really wanted to do something, to give back and to be helpful and to not have my whole life be about making money or doing whatever it was I was doing for work at the time … to just do something to be useful, and to help other living beings, which for me is the purpose of my life.”
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