let me tell you about my pet

Yeardley Smith’s Cats Refuse to Use the Toilet or Walk on a Leash

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty, Yeardley Smith

Yeardley Smith is, of course, the voice of Lisa Simpson. She also hosts the true-crime podcast Small Town Dicks, which returned for its fifth season on September 13. Can she tell you about her cat, Zipper? And her other cat, Petunia?

On adopting Zipper and Petunia: 

So I was separated from my second husband and I had moved out, and we had one cat left between us. And although the cat was mine first, the cat preferred my ex-husband. And I was like, okay, all right. She was kind of crazy anyway. She was a sweet cat, but she was old at that point, and crabby. And she loved him. So I was like, you know what, that’s okay. You do you. And he was perfectly happy to keep her.

So I moved into this apartment and I wasn’t gonna get another cat, but in the meantime, while we were in the process of getting divorced, I would still go to the house and visit the cat, Betsy, on Saturdays while my ex-husband was off playing softball. I would sometimes go to the pet store and bring her little toys that she would, of course, never play with. So one day I went to the store and they were having a small adoption event, and there were some kittens in cages. They were so cute. I saw Zipper in the cage with another little black-and-white kitty, and Zipper was all about it. Reaching through the cage like, Hey, hey, HEY! Listen to me, dude, you are not leaving without me! She was so loud and so eager. So I inquired. I told them I might be interested in taking this little gray kitten, and the woman who was running the adoption event said they didn’t want to split her and this other white kitten with black patches up; it turned out to be Zipper and Petunia, my two cats. They weren’t sisters, but they were rescued together. I told them I needed to think about it.

So I went away and, of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. When I went back and nobody had adopted them — they had different names at the time, I think Zipper was Tinkerbell and Petunia was Cinderella or something. And I was like, if I take you that’s not gonna fly. So I thought, okay, well I certainly don’t want to upset the ecosystem of these two little rescue kitties, so I decided that I would take them both.

On naming them Zipper and Petunia: 

I named Zipper “Zipper” because she zipped around. She was like a windup toy. And she bounced off the walls and it was hilarious. I’m sort of of the philosophy that your animal will tell you its name, and her name came immediately. And then Petunia, she’s actually quite beautiful. She’s white and she’s very very shy. And she has a perfectly pink nose. So I named her petunia for her pink nose, because it’s pink like a petunia. But then I thought to myself, well, that’s sort of a stupid name. That’s not a very good name. So then I tried to change the name and come up with something cooler. And I couldn’t change it! I couldn’t change it. So it stuck. And now she’s Petunia.

On attempting to potty train, walk, and stroller her cats:

So I got them in 2008, and at the time I was living in an apartment but I was looking for a house. When we finally moved into the house, I had this idea that I would potty train them. The way you do it is, you buy this plastic form that you put on top of your toilet seat, and it has concentric circles. And as your cat gets used to it, you pop out the circles until it’s just the toilet seat itself. And then the cat knows how to perch on it and the cat goes into the toilet. It’s pretty cool. And it was going really well, particularly with Zipper, who was getting the hang of it. We were about on our second-to-last circle, and she was like, all right, I’m good, I can do it! Petunia … not so much. Every time she would go into the bathroom she would look up and be like, Really? Are we doing this? Because, you know, I’m a cat. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but … I’m a cat. And I’m like, I know, but we can do this! I’m not even gonna make you flush! I’ll do that! She’s like, Ah, this is not … I don’t really like this, I’m not diggin’ it. This is not good for me.

I realized I was losing that battle, but I was also trying to get them to walk on a leash. That was a disaster. I tried it on Zipper first, because she was always a little more game. I bought a harness for her and attached the leash and we tried it at the apartment first. I put the harness on and she was like, Ah … uh … ummm … I’m not … ahh … this is … this is not good, I don’t know what’s happening here. So I attached the leash and I tried to walk her with it, and she dropped to her side, and then it was just a drag. I just dragged her along the carpet for about a foot. And she was like, See? This is not gonna work. This isn’t happening.

So then I bought a cat stroller where you put the cats in the stroller and you zip it up so they can see out, and there’s mesh and everything. And I thought, okay, this is gonna work. So I put them both in the stroller and we were gonna go, we were still in the apartment, we were gonna go outside, we made it out into the hallway, and they started screaming their heads off. You would think that I was pulling their whiskers out one by one with my bare hands. And literally somebody popped their head out of their apartment and was like, “Is everything okay?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s fine, everything’s fine, I’m just taking my cats for a walk!” It literally sounded like bloody murder, it was so loud and so embarrassing, and they were so furious. We never made it outside.

On building the cats an elaborate cat gym that they do not use:

The staircase in my house is pretty wide, so I had this idea that I would build them this really elaborate cat gym. I hired this guy who was doing some beautiful, built-in woodwork to build it like a sculpture, so it wasn’t a total eyesore when they weren’t on it. And two things happened: First, when we initially built it they were kind of intrigued. It had a little tunnel with holes in it so they could hide and then peek out. It has these trays at the very top that had rugs in them so they could lay down, and then different levels that they could jump to and hop around in.

So then of course after spending a buttload of money on having this beautiful thing made, which literally looked like a Danish sculpture, after a month they were like, Meh. Got any crumpled up Post-its? ’Cause that’s what we really like. Or a paper bag? The classic paper bag? So I was like, fuck me. So now I have this huge cat gym, which is basically the entire length of the stairway, that they don’t use. So I’m like, great. That’s awesome.

On her favorite thing about Zipper and Petunia:

Zipper is just so affectionate and so trusting. I really I feel like it’s a gift when your animal trusts you enough to sleep soundly on you. On your lap, or wherever it is they choose to sleep on you or with you. It is such — it is one of the deepest ways that they bond with us. And it just never gets old.

And Petunia has her way of doing that, also. It’s different than Zipper. I feel like Petunia is always on the job, she’s always securing the perimeter, but I appreciate that about her. She’s a sweet, sweet girl. She’s lovely. And beautiful. Like, she’s a white cat, and she’s the cleanest white cat I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know how she does that, but — I just, I love that they seem happy. I love that. That makes me feel like we are a good little family together.

Let Yeardley Smith Tell You About Her Cats