The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Would you like to adopt Adam Sandler? He’s small and scaly and available.

Adam Sandler the gecko is one of many pets given odd names by shelters that want to grab the attention of potential adopters. (Nebraska Humane Society)
Placeholder while article actions load

Cary Grant is known for his handsome visage, a debonair demeanor and purring loudly when held.

Grant, a 3-month-old kitten, resides at the Shelbyville-Bedford County Humane Association in Tennessee, where his neighbors include Dorian Gray and Tinkerbell. Grant stands out among your typical Whiskers and Fluffies on Petfinder, one of numerous bizarrely named animals popping up on the website and maybe even across your social media feeds.

Many shelters have learned that weirder is better when it comes to grabbing the attention of someone who might take an animal home. While some were flooded with adoption and foster requests last year as the “pandemic pet” became a national trend, these days many shelters are reporting overcrowding and must maintain turnover rates as more animals continue to come in. The silly names are part of that campaign, noms de guerre in the battle to be adopted.

We’ve always delighted in strange animal names when they’re on-screen: the talking horse Mr. Ed, Cat from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the beer-promoting bull terrier Spuds MacKenzie. But now they have a practical, real-life purpose on a screen the size of your hand.

A major figure in this arena is Jea Jensen, a 27-year-old Massachusetts legal assistant who started the Twitter account @petfindernames in April after realizing the odd pet listings she sent to friends could work for a larger audience. Now, the account has around 340,000 followers and Jensen must be more stringent about what names are weird enough to warrant posting. For one, naming an animal Jake from State Farm is not as creative as you might think.

Jensen’s account elevates these animals to a larger digital following, which could perhaps find them a home a little sooner. She said it led directly to the adoption of Skull Crusher the kitten, who was taken by the mother of a user who came across the post, and he even got to keep the name.

Jensen said the trend is especially helpful for cats, which experience a birthrate boom from spring to early fall — a.k.a. “kitten season” — which makes it easier for some to get lost in the shuffle and never find homes.

“There are so many of them who need to be adopted that are typically tabbies or black cats or older cats,” she said. “They’re the ones that just go by. This is a way to grab the attention.”

Clear categories of strange names emerge if you spend enough time perusing listings. Jensen’s favorites are the ones named after random objects, like Lawn Mower or Chainsaw, but others verge into the more abstract, such as a pit bull terrier mix named Knowledge or a guinea pig named Constructive Criticism.

Themes across multiple related pets are also popular. Litters of kittens are frequently named for similar words, phrases or pop culture characters, occasionally leaving odd individual identities: If there is a Tic and Tac, there unfortunately must be a Toe. (Also see: Pomp and Circumstance.)

Another popular category is celebrity names, but the more obscure or particularly fitting shine brighter: Jensen remembers a small, orange kitten named Ed Sheeran that bore more than a passing resemblance to the British singer.

Tori Fugate, chief communications officer of the Kansas City-based KC Pet Project, said that working in an animal shelter has its heartbreaking days, so the names offer a little levity. The intake team can see 50 to 80 animals a day this time of year, so they keep baby-name books handy for the nameless, though it’s hard to imagine one that would recommend Earthworm.

Names are part of the shelter’s larger digital adoption strategy, which includes a TikTok account with more than 860,000 followers. The monikers range from the outright bizarre (including a bug-eyed 16-year-old cat named The Oracle) to ones more in line with cultural events (such as Olympians and “Ted Lasso” characters).

“We’re always looking at things we can do with names, looking at social trends,” Fugate said. “Whatever everybody’s into, hopefully we can ride that wave and get everyone adopted.”

Pet owners explain how they came up with their dog and cat names

The Nebraska Humane Society took in a stray pigeon that it named Mr. World Wide, who became something of a winged mini-sensation. A photo of the bird, who shares sobriquets with the rapper Pitbull, is the most popular post on @petfindernames with more than 300,000 likes, and the bird has since been adopted.

“If you see Mr. Wigglebottoms the dog, I think you’re more likely to stop on him for a second than if the dog’s name was Craig,” said Steven Elonich, the society’s digital marketing manager.

The Nebraska Humane Society has even let members of the public in on the naming: A recent fundraiser invited donors to pay $25 each to name an adoptable pet, ultimately bringing in $4,000 and a new lineup to be doled out, including Jürgen McFlürgengergen, Crunchwrap Supreme, Gary the Immortal and Adam Sandler, a gecko.

Sometimes, names come from temporary foster parents, who take animals into their homes for extra care and attention before they are placed permanently. Mark Ellis, 54, fosters for the KC Pet Project and is tending to brother cats Frankie Two Times and Rev. Cletus Brown.

Frankie is named after a character from a “MADtv” sketch that spoofs both Martin Scorsese films and the 1964 animated “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” television special. One reindeer is named Frankie Two Times in reference to a bit character from “Goodfellas” who had a habit of saying everything twice. Ellis noticed that the cat meowed in twos, and the “MADtv” sketch came to mind, so the name stuck.

As for the reverend, that was closer to Ellis’s usual naming formula: The surname came from the brown fur and the first name went along with another kitten in the litter named Cleopatra. Ellis likes to give the cats titles, and while “Reverend” was just a random pick, he did seem to be the most contemplative of the litter.

“It gives them a little bit more traction” in the adoption process, he said. “I think in people’s eyes, they were able to already know the pet before they ever wanted to meet them.”

Ellis has been fostering animals for four decades. He’s usually good at not getting too attached, but he’s bonded with Frankie and Cletus, his “survivor kitties.” They survived feline panleukopenia, a contagious viral disease that frequently wipes out whole litters.

Ellis said he’ll take a break after Frankie and Cletus find new homes. But after a few months, he plans to pick up a new litter of kittens. They — of course — will all need names.