Fittingly, there is now a museum here dedicated to this four-legged fetish. Welcome to the Animal Museum.
The 6,000-square-foot space tucked into an industrial corner of downtown L.A.., is sandwiched between factories-turned-galleries and design studios — fashionable digs for a very fashionable cause. Inside the museum, which had its soft launch in October, there’s an exhibit entitled “Crazy Cat Ladies,” a pop hodgepodge spanning film and literature to paintings and cat lady “facts.”
“Being a crazy cat lady can be immensely rewarding, but it can also be very stressful,” one plaque reads. Another reports that “One in four Americans feed stray cats, so many of us have crazy cat lady tendencies!”
A banner tells the history of cat companionship, and a pamphlet informs that “Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too.” There are Buddha-like effigies of felines, a shrine with candles and an image of a cat-faced shiva, and even a rendition of what one crazy’s living room might look like. There you’ll find cat calendars, curios and family photos, a feline mise-en-scène tied together by a small television airing a loop of a black cat playing drums followed by a trio of kittens staring up in awe as animated cats fly by on a rainbow. Scrawled across the screen is this wistful phrase: “Can’t hug every cat.”
Another museum wing is dedicated to “Fashion Tails,” a display of dozens of framed glossy photos of actors and their animals. The museum’s co-founder and primary funding source, animal-welfare activist Ellen Lavinthal, calls it an Annie Leibovitz-esque homage to VIPs with their rescue pets. Among them are shots of the comics Kevin Nealon and Jason Alexander posed with pooches, pizza and playing cards.
The goal of the Animal Museum is to bring “a historical perspective of the animal protection movement since the Industrial Revolution,” said Lavinthal, who started the project as a pop-up exhibit in 2010. “This is the first museum of its kind in the country, if not the world, to show the human-animal relationship. What we want is to empower people and encourage change.”
Oddly, the museum does not offer visitors any direct way to help animals. There’s no collection of donations for animal conservation or welfare organizations, though there’s lots of information on pet rescue and adoption. And that’s too bad, given that the museum’s board includes names like Ellen DeGeneres and Shepard Fairey, whose fame could probably be leveraged for fundraising.
Lavinthal said she doesn’t plan to donate proceeds to animal organizations; ticket sales, which range from $5 to $7 for visitors older than 12, are intended to keep the museum afloat. “It’s expensive to keep this going,” she said.
Whatever the museum’s philanthropic bona fides, Lavinthal said she believes “having all these issues in a museum provokes thought.” The project was years in the making, she said, a longtime dream of hers and a troop of like-minded socialites and creative types.
Decades ago, Lavinthal gave up a budding law career for her first love: animals.
“After my bar results, I started walking dogs,” she said, adding that she ranks her love for pets above her love for people. Today, she said with a laugh, she owns a number of pets that is “above the legal limit.”
Marriage to a music industry veteran afforded her 30 years in what Lavinthal calls “the movement.” Her street cred includes being arrested for protesting the Farmer John meat company and helping to spearhead the 2012 West Hollywood city ban on fur. Along the way, she has drawn critics who question her dedication, accusing her of eating meat and what might be the ultimate offense for an L.A. animal welfare activist: toting a designer leather handbag.
“I am a vegan,” she said. “I eat a plant-based diet.”
Lavinthal insists she wants to educate the public, and that means attracting visitors. Friends in high places could be her pocket aces.
“Having had animals my whole life and been active in pet charities, as well as creating products for pets, I think the Animal Museum is awesome,” says Bret Michaels, the frontman of the glam metal band Poison and an honorary board member of the museum. “What a great way to showcase the ongoing connection between us and our animals, as well as to promote the rescue and adoption of all animals.”
Will this make a difference in puppy mills, animal testing or abuse — or at least change the way we view crazy cat ladies? If some of the names in the pictures on the wall show up in person, maybe so. In this strange land of celebrity where image trumps all else, Lavinthal’s Animal Museum might not be so crazy after all.