Catman pounces on Whidbey

Maybe you’ve seen him on Ripley’s

Dennis “Cat” Avner is a little out of place on South Whidbey.

He’s a cigarette-smoking, out-of-work, registered Republican who owns firearms and left California because he believes it’s become a “communist state.”

What’s more, he’s in the process of transforming into a tiger. He has stripes tattooed across his head, a mouth full of fangs, a number of facial implants to make his face look feline, piercings in his lips and brow for whiskers, and silicon injections in his chin, cheeks and lips.

Whatever people may think, Avner is determined to make the island his home. He strikes a visitor as a genuinely nice man, with a healthy sarcastic sense of humor. A catman with a heart of gold. And that may be all it takes to fit in.

“People have a lot of preconceptions about me,” he said. “They make up facts. I wish they would just ask.”

The 46-year-old electronics and computer technician left Southern California in order to find work outside of a busted economy and landed in rural Freeland less than a month ago. He lives with a married couple, Rick Weiss and Tess Calhoun, two dogs, two cats and a snake in a fixer-upper house with a beautiful view of Holmes Harbor.

Avner claims to be the most famous, or at least most recognizable, person in the world. While that may be an exaggeration — which is just like a cat — he certainly must be one of the biggest celebrities on Whidbey Island.

He’s been on at least 50 different TV shows and featured in magazines and newspapers more times than he can remember. Larry King interviewed him twice. Ripley’s Believe It or Not featured him twice. He’s been on Rickie Lake, MTV, VH1, Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel and on and on. He’s been on TV programs in many different countries, including Japan, Germany, Australia, China and even Romania.

“I would rather be rich and unknown,” he said, “than famous and poor.”

Avner began transforming himself into a tiger 25 years ago, undergoing at least a dozen surgeries and hours of tattooing by a body modification artist in Phoenix, Arizona. He said his desire to become catlike stems from his Indian heritage, notably the Huron and Lakotas. He claims it’s an ancient Huron tradition to transform into an animal totem.

A “totem” is a concept that’s difficult for even Avner to explain. It’s like a spiritual guide, he said, but much more. Every person has a totem, though most aren’t aware. His totem, of course, is a cat. He recalls dreams and thoughts of cats from his earliest memories of growing up in Michigan.

“People who don’t have close relations with their totems don’t have any concept of what it’s like,” he said. “It’s physical, dreamlike, emotional and metaphysical.”

To be closer to his totem, he decided to turn himself into a tiger — the cat he feels the closest bond with. Though he’s a work in progress, he currently has tiger stripes on his face and much of his body. To create a feline face, he had his lips and septum split; implants were placed in his forehead and the bridge of his nose; his teeth were removed and replaced with tiger teeth, complete with sharp fangs.

He had surgery to give his ears pointed tips. His lips and brow were pierced so that he can put in whiskers whenever he wants. His contact lenses give him cat eyes and his fingernails are long and painted with stripes.

Though the down-on-his-luck cat guy can’t currently afford it, Avner said his next project will be to get transdermal implants to place tiger ears on the top of his head.

While many humans may not understand his obsession, Avner said felines do. He’s volunteered at cat rescue organizations and recently got the chance to wrestle with panthers and a giant tiger. There was a little bloodshed, but a lot of bonding.

“I have no fear of them,” he said. “I communicate with them.”

There probably aren’t any big cats in the wilds of Whidbey, but Avner brought a couple spoiled house cats — Morris and Pretty Girl — to keep him company.

Although South Whidbey is stereotypically known as liberal, as well as affluent, Avner said his decision to move there had nothing to do with the progressive, accepting attitude. He was out of work in Southern California, so he left in order to find work outside of a poor economy.

Avner decided to move with his good friends, Weiss and Calhoun, who were going to Washington because that’s where Boeing transferred Weiss. After an intensive home search, they ended up on South Whidbey.

Avner’s job, while he’s looking for work on the island, is to fix and remodel the home. He hopes to eventually find a job either as an electronics repairman or a locksmith.

Calhoun said she met Avner at an anthropomorphic arts convention. It’s a hobby or interest that’s received a lot of media attention lately, including on MTV and the CSI: Miami TV show. Devotees call themselves furry fans or simply furries.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “Furry fandom is a subculture of the science fiction and fantasy fandoms. Members of the furry fandom … enjoy media that involves anthropomorphic animals: that is, fictional animals with human traits (such as walking on two feet, talking, wearing clothes, living in houses, etc.).”

Beyond this unique interest, Calhoun understands Avner’s connection with his totem. Her own totem is a horse. While she hasn’t transformed herself into an equine, she does have a large tattoo of a horse cave painting on her back.

Calhoun and Weiss said they love to live with and care for Avner.

“He’s living in a family for really the first time,” she said. “It takes some adjusting.”

So far, Avner said he’s had a great time on Whidbey. His home was recently visited by a Island County sheriff’s deputy when some rambunctious people at their party decided to howl at the moon. But it was no big deal, Calhoun said.

The unique family has traveled to Oak Harbor a number of times, to eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant and shop at Home Depot. Avner claims that local folks have barely batted on eye at him.

While he’s happy to talk to curious strangers and answer questions, he does have one pet peeve.

“I hate those jerks who take photos of me without asking,” he said.

So that’s probably not a good idea. Some tigers, after all, are known as man-eaters.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.