Who knew he had it in him?
Garfield—that famous (and famously self-centered) cartoon cat, who’s been known to spar with his canine housemate Odie and torture his owner Jon—actually cares about his fellow creatures.
The proof? He’s lending his considerable marketing mojo to the Shelter Pet Project, an initiative backed by The HSUS, Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council that aims to make people aware of the awesomeness awaiting them at their local animal shelters. Having previously conquered the funny pages (“Garfield” is the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip) as well as movies, TV and all manner of merchandise, Garfield began appearing in Shelter Pet Project videos and public service announcements in 2015, urging people to find their new best friends by adopting from a shelter.
It might seem like Garfield has always been with us, but he actually sprang from the mind and pen of cartoonist Jim Davis, who launched the character in 1978. In this edited interview with Animal Sheltering’s James Hettinger, Davis reflects on Garfield, Odie and the other pets in his life—and why he’s using his talents to help end pet homelessness.
How did you decide to get Garfield and Odie involved in the Shelter Pet Project?
It was such a perfect fit for the characters. Both Garfield and Odie were abandoned by their owners—Garfield was left to fend for himself in an Italian restaurant before he was eventually adopted by Jon Arbuckle, and Odie was left behind by his owner, Jon’s former roommate, Lyman. (There are various theories on what became of Lyman.) The characters have enjoyed all the comforts of home, and they hope to help their fellow pets enjoy the same.
What do you think the characters can offer to help the cause?
Because they’re animated and colorful, they can capture the audience’s attention. Because they’re funny, they can deliver an important message with a bit of humor. And because they’re pets, they can relate to the plight of the shelter pet.
You once said that Garfield’s appearances on merchandise teach you about the character by putting him outside his comic strip setting. Have you learned anything new about Garfield’s personality by lending him to the Shelter Pet Project videos and graphics? (It does seem like he’s being a little less self-centered than usual!)
Yes, it’s true; Garfield is not always so altruistic! But working on this project, I learned that Garfield and Odie genuinely do care about cats and dogs. Now, while it’s true Garfield’s had some harsh words about dogs, he recognizes that he and Odie are lucky to be members of a loving household, and he believes all pets should have the same good fortune.
What kinds of animals were you exposed to growing up, and how did those experiences shape your cartoon creations? Are any of the characters based on pets you had in real life?
I grew up on a farm, and there were always about 25 barn cats roaming around. I was fascinated by their different personalities and temperaments. They were all very aloof and independent. We also raised milch cows and I had a few I named, but obviously, they weren’t really pets. Garfield is pretty much an amalgam of all the cats I remembered from my childhood.
How did you decide on an orange tabby for Garfield? Did you have a connection to an orange tabby at the time you invented the character?
The first time I was asked this, I was surprised, because in my mind, all cats are orange. Of course, I know they’re not ... but for some reason that ginger color just stuck in my mind and I filed it under “this is the color of a cat.”
Is there a story behind why Garfield’s favorite food is lasagna?
Not really a story per se—I love lasagna—I figured everyone did.
You’ve said that before launching “Garfield” in 1978 you noticed that the funny pages had plenty of dogs but not many cats. Why do you think that was the case? Did you sense that there was a large void to be filled by a comic cat?
Well, let’s face it. Dogs have lots of personality. And dogs are more giving. A dog will come when you call it. A cat will walk the other way. A dog will show off—a cat will take a nap. So, it’s understandable that dogs were getting all the good gigs. After my failure at getting a bug in the comics (“Gnorm Gnat”), I did take a hard look at what was working on the comics pages, and there was Snoopy, Marmaduke, Belvedere—but no cats. That was a “Eureka!” moment. I knew cats!
With the advent of shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” cartoon humor has certainly gotten edgier since “Garfield” began, yet he and his more mainstream humor remain tremendously popular. What do you think are the keys to his appeal?
I’ve always felt there was room for all sorts of humor, but I just couldn’t see changing Garfield for the shock value. There are a lot of moms out there who feel safe when they put a Garfield cartoon on TV—I wouldn’t want to break that trust. I think Garfield is appealing because his humor is understated—he’s not trying to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer. And his humor deals with universal topics—eating and sleeping. Everyone can relate.
Is your own personality reflected in Garfield, or are you more like his long-suffering owner, Jon?
Like Garfield, I love lasagna, coffee and cat naps. But unlike Garfield, I don’t hate Mondays. Like Jon, I can be laid back. I also had dating disasters similar to Jon’s.
Has anything about Garfield’s success surprised you? Do you ever just step back and marvel at the fact that you’ve created characters that are instantly recognized around the world?
Are you kidding? Everything about his success has surprised me! I was thrilled just to be syndicated. In my wildest dreams I hoped maybe there’d be a book or a coffee mug, but I never imagined Garfield would resonate the way he did. It’s all about timing! I am still amazed and humbled that people love the characters. I try not to analyze it too much—it might go away.
Does Garfield have any lessons to teach us as pet owners?
There’s no such thing as a spoiled pet! Indulgence is a good thing! Belly rubs make everyone happy! Too much love is never enough! (Garfield could go on … how much time do you have?)
To learn more and view videos featuring Garfield and others, visit theshelterpetproject.org.