In the world of celebrity cats - and yes, there is such a world - Lil Bub is near the top. She's not as grumpy as that superstar Grumpy Cat, and perhaps not as rich, but this little special-needs cat touches people's hearts in a different way. (So, apparently, does her owner - but more of that later.)
It's not that Lil Bub is a great beauty, with her too-short legs, too-numerous toes and always-hanging-out tongue. It's not that she does tricks, either; in fact, she suffers a rare bone disease and for much of her life she was incontinent and barely able to move. But with her sweetness and her story, she brings a message of acceptance and kindness.
"She's an inspiration to people," says her owner, or "dude", Mike Bridavsky. "She teaches that being different is good - not just good, but better. She teaches acceptance. She has a message of kindness and generosity and also spreads awareness of animal care."
After adopting Lil Bub as a kitten with little hope of her living more than a few months, Mike now spends 80 to 100 hours a week caring for the two-and-a-half-year-old cat and protecting her interests during her appearances, television interviews and photo calls.
"She's changed my life so completely, it's hard to quantify," says Mike on the phone from the United States. "I'm writing and creating TV shows, I wrote a book, I travel round the country with her... But she's changed my life in many ways beyond that. I've learnt a lot about animal care with her, and patience - let's say it's the biggest life-changing event of my life, my adopting her and rescuing her."
But Mike disavows credit for Lil Bub's fame - "She did it all herself," he says.
He casts his mind back to 2011 when he first saw Lil Bub. She was the runt of a feral litter of kittens found by a friend's mum in rural Indiana, and at two months old she weighed only 225 grams.
"She was so small and looked so strange, and had such a hard time that people were worried," he says. "And she had so many genetic issues that I assumed that there were probably many more internally. I very much took her in just to give her a home. My vet, when she first saw her, said she was the weirdest cat ever and we had no idea what was going on.
"It turned out that internally she's fine, she's perfect. Her bone disease [osteopetrosis] we found out about when she grew up - it's not something you can test early for - and it turns out she's the only cat born with this disease in recorded history, so that was also difficult to diagnose. In that sense I didn't know what I'd be getting into but I didn't expect I was adopting a healthy cat that would just hang around my house.
"She was such a remarkable animal - I was moved by her in such a way that I decided I would do anything to help her. I didn't think twice. But looking back on it, yeah, even during it, when I discovered the incontinence, it was a huge one, 'my apartment is covered in pee and I don't know what to do about it'. It was very stressful but that's what special-needs is and you figure out how to deal with it. I learned how to 'pee' her. I had to come home every three hours and take her to the bathroom ... you figure it out, and now she's learning to pee on her own after a year and a half of incontinence."
It's a big commitment, but "she's very aware that she needs me and needs my help and she appreciates it - she returns the love one million-fold".
As one does, Mike put some photos of his little cat on Tumblr, and Lil Bub quickly went viral.
"My friend designed a T-shirt, someone bought it, someone else bought it, then BuzzFeed did an article about it, and the next thing you know Good Morning America flew us out and then someone asked us to do a book, and before we knew it we were doing a TV show."
According to her website, Lil Bub has helped raise US$60,000 for various charities through an online shop and through meet-and-greets in aid of animal shelters.
Plenty of travel is involved but it doesn't bother Lil Bub - in fact, Mike says, she loves it and it's good for her. "I noticed that when we travel she's always more excited, she's always more active, in a better mood in general, and I never understood why. It turned out that the vibrations in the car or the plane help break down the cells in her bones which cause her disease."
He says he has strict rules about travel and everything he and Lil Bub do. "One of my rules is that I don't seek out any [publicity] opportunities. So anything that we've done - a show or book or any other stuff - it has come to me directly. And then I take each opportunity and I decide whether it's right for Bub as far as her message and as far as her health go. I'm very strict that there's always another person with me when we travel, what kind of places we can go and can't go, and how many volunteers there are to help. I always have a clause that gets me out of anything in case she's uncomfortable."
It's hard not to admire a guy who's so protective and caring about his pet. Further, as we should all know by now, gentleness with animals is something that many find not just commendable in a man but, you know, attractive. And Mike has not missed out on this kind of attention: many photos of the bearded, sleeve-tattooed Mike nuzzling his special-needs kitty are in circulation on the net, handily brought together in a recent BuzzFeed feature titled "Mike Bridavsky, AKA Lil Bub's Dude, Is Hot And We Need To Talk About It".
(Even in a world where a funny-looking cat can be a star, for humans it's good looks that help!)
I did not ask Mike about his personal circumstances. But for those interested, he did mention a fiancée, whose kitten Snooky seems to be a motivation for Lil Bub to get round and do more.
And Lil Bub does show signs of improvement in her condition, thanks indirectly to her celebrity. "A fan recommended magnetic field therapy," says Mike. "We tried it out and it was miraculous. Within weeks she started standing for the first time in her life - though we were told that she would never walk again. Now, after using this treatment for almost a year, she's running and jumping.
"The part that fascinates me is that she's caused it herself - her fame gave her a way to find help, you know? If it weren't for her being in the public eye, we would never have found this treatment."
It seems that Lil Bub's fame is more than just an internet sensation - it's been good for everyone.
A bonus to this story is that, thanks to Animal Planet, which is about to screen a programme about Lil Bub (see below), we have a pretty good giveaway. Leave a comment today (talking about Lil Bub, or a special-needs pet you know, or even the hotness or notness of guys who like cats), you'll go in the draw to win one of three copies of Lil Bub's Lil Book: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Amazing Cat on the Planet.
Lil Bub: Sleepover Special is screening on Animal Planet on Saturday, April 12, at 9.30pm.
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