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My Best Cat and Dog Writing, 2016

December 2016 marks three full years that I’ve been an SEO writer for pet lifestyle sites Dogster and Catster. What is SEO? It stands for “search engine optimization,” and involves locating terms and phrases that people search for in their thousands, and attempting, through a number of strategies, to get my sites’ posts to come up as high as possible when people look for info on search engines.

When I first started, it was sort of like playing MadLibs; I’d try to work a particular phrase or word in as often as I could. Technology moves quickly, and search engines caught up with that particular tactic, also called “keyword stuffing,” and began counting that against sites. In any event, as a lifelong writer, trained researcher, and all-around perfectionist, I was well aware that most SEO writing was crap, and have always tried to give my essays a bit more flare, a bit more style, like this baby puppy.

this baby puppy got a new baby sweater for christmas!

A post shared by Melvin Peña (@melvin__pena) on

 

I’ve come a long way since the very first piece I wrote for Dogster, “Ringworm in Dogs: Detection, Treatment, Prevention.” From roughly the second half of 2015 through the first half of 2016, there was a dude who was pre-selecting phrases and topics for me, and they all sucked. They all seemed to be either about horrible diseases or bizarre medications, with the end result that my work was a constant slog of despair.

Once they let me off the leash, though, earlier this year, and I could do my own keyword research and determine my own topics again, I started to flourish anew. Since then, the stuff I’ve been writing has been stranger, more eclectic, and more outlandish than ever, while still hewing close to the needs of SEO. These are my 5 best cat and dog pieces that were published this year.

Top 5 Catster pieces

  1. How to Draw a Cat,” January 12: Because of the paucity of compelling topics on the pre-established SEO list, I saved ones like this for special occasions. I love to make art, and enjoy a new challenge, so I really put a lot of work into this one.
  2. How Do Cats Taste?,” February 9: Talk about a tone-deaf phrase. Clearly geared toward a lurid curiosity about places where cats are on the menu, I decided to make use of the shockingly high numbers on that topic to steer people toward an essay that is actually about how cats tongues work, and how they experience the sensation of taste. That approach also allowed me to makes clear in the intro that I’d been listening to a lot of Lovecraft on audiobook.
  3. 18th-Century British Poems About Cats,” March 15: The prompt was “poems about cats.” Since I trained as a scholar of 18th-century literature, the essay’s content suggested itself quite easily. Pretty sure I did more leg-work and research on this piece than almost any other this whole year. I wouldn’t say the financial reward was worth the effort, but the process was intellectually satisfying!

    poems about cats

    Love Me, Love My Cat” via Yale Center for British Art

  4. The Cats of Doctor Who,” May 10: Talk about relevant to my interests; I don’t know if a single piece gave me more pure joy to research, write, and locate art for than this one. Granted, there were more than enough comics and Big Finish audio dramas to satisfy even the most desperate fan. However, as there were no new TV adventures from last Christmas until this, Doctor Who fanatics like me had to make our own fun in 2016. Even more gratifying, it was featured in BBC America’s weekly roundup of Doctor Who news about a week later!
  5. My 6 Favorite Cat Power Songs,” July 13: Nothing at all to do with cats, really, but Chan Marshall’s enduring popularity and general awesomeness means that “cat power” is a high-value search term. I was ecstatic to write about Marshall’s influence on me and my listening habits over the last two decades.

Top 5 Dogster pieces

  1.  “Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?,” May 17: I love a pleasing head tilt in a dog. Every once in a while, I also like an open-ended question to play around with. My favorite of the reasons I offer in this one is shame/embarrassment, because I got to use a picture of my baby puppy wearing a little sweater and giving me earth-shattering side-eye.
  2. Are Pigs Smarter Than Dogs?,” September 14: So much good came out of this piece, it’s an easy choice. First, my cover model and star of the piece’s photo selections is my friend Kelsey’s pet pig on a leash, Jolene. Next, it gave my friend Shalla and I the idea for an art project I’ll be working on more in the new year, inspired by the early-modern subgenre of bucolic portraiture in which women were painted as shepherdesses.

    are pigs smarter than dogs

    Pig on a leash.

  3. Confession: I Have a Pet Crush on Someone Else’s Dog!,” October 05: To make a bit of extra money — indeed, it would be difficult to work any harder and make any less than I already do — I was encouraged to pitch some first-person pieces on bringing up my baby puppy. This one’s basically about how my jealousy over a tiny dog I follow on Instagram caused me to realize I wasn’t giving my own baby puppy a fair chance.
  4. Can Dogs See Ghosts?,” October 11: I went deep for the research on this one. The vast majority of SEO pieces extant are either inane, anecdotal, or simply repetitive. To differentiate my work, I drew on actual scholarship on links between dogs and the supernatural in anthropology, cultural studies, and folklore. I couldn’t have been more psyched than when I found out the piece had been shared by Coast to Coast AM, alongside reports on terra cotta warriors, dinosaur extinction, dwarf planets and what the Pope may have told Hillary Clinton about aliens. I’ve never felt more like Mulder!

    can dogs see ghosts

    Scully, it’s clearly a case of demon fetal harvest!

  5. Art History and Pug History: Pugs in 18th-Century Art,” November 22: It’s sort of a toss-up between this one and the one about 18th-century cat poems above for the piece I’m most proud of and found most  stimulating to research and write. I started thinking about Pugs in portraiture when I was at the National Gallery in DC in the Fall of 2015, and spent a great deal of time thinking about the little Pug in Goya’s painting of the Marquesa de Pontejos, so the concept had been gestating for a while in my mind. The original prompt was something about the history of Pugs, but having seen that one of Dogster’s sister sites, Petcha, had a piece on exactly that topic, I panicked a bit before changing directions.

That’s that! Ten of my favorite, and of my best, pieces of dog and cat writing during 2016! Was the one you like best among my selections? Did you like another one better? What kinds of common dog or cat questions or topics are constantly pawing at the back of your mind?

Why is Lil Bub a Life-Changing Cat?

From Alien Cat Matilda and Venus the Two Face Cat to Grumpy Cat and the late-lamented Colonel Meow, since I began writing for Catster two years ago, I have learned more about Internet celebrity cats than I ever thought possible. Of all the cats in the online pantheon, none has made a greater impact on me than Lil Bub. Every time Bub pops up on my Instagram or Facebook feeds, her wide-set eyes and lolling tongue make me feel calm, peaceful, and happy.

When it was announced that Lil Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky, would be giving a talk in Raleigh as part of North Carolina State University Library’s Creativity and Technology Symposium (CATS), I claimed my ticket immediately. Even though the event itself was disappointing and poorly executed, I was more impressed than ever by the actual, practical outcomes of Bub’s mission.

Anticipation

I arrived at the James B. Hunt Library on NC State’s campus just after 5pm and was the first person in line. By 6:30, well over 100 people had already gathered in the building’s lobby. As a former academic and denizen of university libraries, I felt certain that the place hadn’t seen so many people milling about this late in the day since finals week of Spring semester. It amused me, as well as curious passersby I chatted with, that all these people were gathered to see a cat.

One woman I spoke with — a burlesque performer whose stage name is Melody Magpie — drove from Richmond, Virginia, just for the chance to see Lil Bub. Just so you appreciate the effort and dedication, that’s a 3-hour drive in traffic. She does a routine as Bub, and brought her custom-made papier-mâché Bub mask to the event, in addition to wearing a Bub t-shirt and sporting a freshly-inked Bub tattoo on her thigh. Without question, Lil Bub is an impactful cat who means a great deal to people, most of whom will only ever see her on their computers and mobile devices.

A haphazard program

The event page for “A Life-Changing Cat: Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub” promised only that attendees would “hear from Mike and see Lil BUB in person.” The university setting, the CATS symposium’s themes, and the moderator’s role as a user-experience librarian raised some expectations for me in the month leading up to the talk. I imagined that what we’d hear would be some inside-baseball related to the Lil Bub phenomenon: “a business that is based on and requires a very detailed understanding of social media, archiving, and technology.”

While I hoped to learn something about these technical elements of Lil Bub as a viral celebrity, I’m sure most people just wanted to see the cat herself. What we got was very little of either. The presentation showcased a melange of poorly-sequenced slides and video clips, interspersed with rambling conversations about anything but Lil Bub, creativity, or technology.

Bridavsky and the moderator spent an inordinate amount of time discussing minutiae related to the Bloomington, Indiana, indie-rock scene of the late 1990s. For the most part, Bub herself was tucked away in Bridavsky’s lap, out of sight, both of the assembled audience and the cameras that livestreamed the event.

Internet celebrity cats and the illusion of intimacy

When we did see her, Lil Bub more than lived up to expectations, inasmuch as she is a small and adorable cat. Anyone who photographs their pets knows that you may have to take and then root through 50 photos to find even one worth posting. Over time, Bridavsky’s careful and painstaking cultivation of Bub’s online persona has had an effect on me. My experience of Lil Bub is a kind of mediated intimacy, the image of her face staring directly at me through countless photos and videos.

I thought that being in Bub’s presence would be a special, emotional experience. Sitting in the front row of the auditorium, not even 10 feet from Bub, though, I felt terribly distant. The audience was forewarned not to applaud, squee, or burst into tears to avoid startling the cat. Internet celebrity though she is, with the full gamut of meanings that people project onto her, Lil Bub is still a cat. A muted audience, a largely off-topic conversation, and a lap-sequestered cat put the entire audience at several awkward removes from a very public figure.

It was announced well ahead of time that the event would not include a meet-and-greet, which typically involves sizable financial investment from participants. This made perfect sense, since managing these personal interactions is a part of the Bub phenomenon that Bridavsky finds most taxing, both on the cat and on himself. He explained that, while he feels bad that not everyone can afford the donations, their relative expense limits the stress on Bub and maximizes charitable donations to Lil Bub’s Big Fund.

Lil Bub, charity, and practical outcomes

For most of the audience, the best part of the evening was certainly the end, when Bridavsky invited people to come down to the stage for a few minutes and take photos of Bub while she ate a snack. Let’s face it, 200 people did not come to a university library auditorium on a cold and wet late-October night to hear about the struggles of Midwestern indie-rock bands, nor to see Bub photos and videos that are readily available online. They came to see and be near a cat who has only ever existed for them on screens.

Perhaps the next public lecture or discussion might feature Bub on a dais or raised platform of her own, on full view for a respectful crowd. I don’t intend to come off as sour. It was not the cat that let me down, but the way she was presented. Make no mistake, as an example of the right way to handle, manage, and convert viral fame into positive communal action, Lil Bub is a true role model.

What truly redeemed the event for me, even more than the elation of the people standing in the line beforehand, was the practical outcome it had for shelter cats in the Raleigh-Durham metroplex. NC State Library and Lil Bub partnered with Raleigh’s Safe Haven Cat Shelter and Clinic to host a food and supply drive. Safe Haven — a non-profit, no-kill shelter — was one of the very first recipients of the ASPCA-managed Bub Fund grant money. Their volunteers and hand-cart were stationed right next to the Bub merchandise table.

Half an hour before the talk started, the cart was more than half filled with donations. As I sat outside the library afterward, trying to process what I’d observed, I saw the Safe Haven volunteers pushing the cart out into the night. For weeks in advance, I thought I’d start weeping uncontrollably at the first sight of Lil Bub in the flesh. It wasn’t until I saw those volunteers leaving with their cart, now stacked high with food and supplies for Safe Haven, that I became emotional.

Why is Lil Bub a “Life-changing cat”?

Ultimately, my disappointment in the talk was inconsequential. She was not there to satisfy my expectations. Lil Bub is not a “life-changing cat” because Bridavsky now has a hectic travel and appearance schedule. Lil Bub is a life-changing cat because her innocent visage inspires people to create and to give. Whether it’s fan works, body art, or burlesque routines, the joy that Lil Bub brings makes them eager to share that joy with others.

On a more practical and immediate level, as a lightning rod for donations — be they gifts of time, money, food, or supplies — Bub’s very existence is producing positive outcomes and making a substantive difference in the lives of animals from Massachusetts to Montana, and from Ringoes, New Jersey to right here in Raleigh, North Carolina.

GOOD JOB, BUB!