Tucker wears a permanent scowl. His green eyes radiate annoyance. The twenty-two-year-old, twenty-five-pound cat doesn’t like the baby stroller in which he rides around downtown Raleigh. He likes it even less when he has to haul his fat ass around the Capitol grounds in pursuit of strategically sprinkled treats. He really doesn’t like basking in the hot April sun or when excited children squeal and approach with huge smiles.

And he certainly doesn’t like you.

“Tucker doesn’t enjoy anything,” says Tucker’s human assistant, Ron Kirk, as he pushes the portly pussycat in a stroller down Fayetteville Street. “He just has varying degrees of dislike.”

Tucker is an old cat, a centenarian in people years, so you can ignore his grumpiness. You don’t even roll your eyes at the fact that he’s being pushed in a stroller. But to look at him, all grizzled and dandruff-ridden and generally gross, you wouldn’t imagine that Tucker had parlayed his almost-daily lunchtime patrols of DTR into something approaching celebrity status.

But he has. Or, more accurately, Kirk has. Their @OakCityKitty Instagram account has more than seven thousand followers, and Tucker has better name recognition downtown than most local politicians. In the span of a few blocks, I watch him encounter—and mostly tolerate—more than a dozen adoring fans.

 “Is that Tucker?” asks one, leaning over the stroller to stroke Tucker’s head. “Hey buddy, are you having a nice day?”

Tucker is not.

Before we continue, let’s get this out of the way: I’m not a cat hater. Quite the opposite: I’m a cat lover. I have two of my own. I’m also the type to spend too much time trawling the internet for cats pics. So, despite Tucker’s general disinterest toward humanity, I, too, am preternaturally inclined toward fawning over him—just like everyone else on Fayetteville Street, it seems.

The question is, why?

Put another way: What is it about this formidable feline that elicits such happiness among strangers when they see him wobbling down the street? And why do pictures of Tucker lying on a treadmill or yawning in front of the history museum make us obsess over our phones, laughing and commenting and sharing them with friends? 

Is it that we’re so cooped up in our cubicles, plagued by the perpetual Mondays, that even the slightest break from drudgery can bring circus-sized joy to our hearts?  

Sort of. To put it more scientifically, says Duke University professor Negar Mottahedeh, the answer is that Tucker is a walking, breathing meme. 

“[Memes] are expressive of our emotions,” says Mottahedeh, who teaches a course on memes, or online objects molded by those who share it. “They express an iconography, things that language can’t always convey. You have expressed how you feel through an object, and that object then is passed on to someone else who does something else with it.”

Animals make especially popular memes because they hit close to home. For cat lovers, cat pics are like a cheeseburger to a starving man: They trigger a rush of instant gratification.

“We’re so addicted to, essentially, what is the morphine drip of cats and dogs online,” Mottahedeh says.

But there are thousands of pet accounts online. What makes Tucker stand out? He’s not a kitten, after all. He’s probably not what you’d consider adorable. He doesn’t do particularly cute or unusual things that go viral. So why has he become a meme?

That’s harder to pin down, Mottahedeh says. Viral sensations are hard to predict and share few similarities. Online success depends in part on the will of the algorithm gods. It can also be a matter of luck—an influencer spreading the word.

Tucker’s evolution into memedom didn’t happen overnight. Kirk met him in 2005, when Tucker, then a spritely eight-year-old, was a resident of the Orange County Animal Shelter. He likely would have been euthanized were it not for his utility; the staff used him to test out dogs for their compatibility with other animals. (If you can get along with Tucker, you can get along with anyone, I suppose.)

Kirk came to the shelter looking for kitty kinship following a bad breakup. There were all the usual candidates: young, cute, small, friendly. But Tucker was … different. For whatever reason, that appealed to Kirk. 

“He was a terrible cat when I first got him,” Kirk says. “Mean, aggressive. I thought somehow I got the worst cat in the world.”

The way to Tucker’s heart, Kirk found, was through his stomach. With lots of caloric incentives—i.e., treats—Tucker’s nastiness began to melt away. But Tucker also began to pack on weight. By 2015, Tucker had ballooned to 32 pounds, which, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, is the cat equivalent of a morbidly obese 544-pound man. But that doesn’t tell the whole story: Tucker is half Maine coon, the largest breed of domesticated cat. So he’s supposed to be big. 

Just not that big.  

A vet prescribed exercise, a foreign concept to a committed couch potato like Tucker. So Kirk introduced Tucker to the sidewalk outside his condo, next to Sono Sushi. Tucker promptly waddled back to the door. The next day, Kirk placed him three feet out, and to the door Tucker returned. 

Soon Tucker became comfortable lounging about ten feet away on the sidewalk, and eventually, with some treat motivation, he began to follow Kirk up and down the block, his belly swaying back and forth like a pendulum, nearly brushing the pavement.

Passersby began to take notice; some mistook Tucker for a feral raccoon. Others asked Kirk, who was never big on social media, if Kirk was on Instagram. Kirk figured it might be a fun waste of time. In April 2016, Tucker premiered on Instagram posing coyly in front of the Capitol with the hashtag #fatcat.

The post got fewer than a dozen likes, most from Kirk’s family.

Within a year, though, Tucker had amassed a thousand followers, both from word of mouth and people who’d encountered him IRL. His popularity really blossomed in late 2017, when Kirk forced Tucker into a Santa outfit.

It was at that point, Kirk says, that Tucker “found his voice”—which is, of course, Kirk’s voice, although Kirk insists it’s Tucker’s voice—and expressed his profound displeasure in the costume in the caption.

“No. This is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. I did not agree to this, nor do I give you permission to post this picture,” Tucker’s rant begins. “Do not share with friends. Remove it at once. Why do you continue to take pictures after I have presented you with my demands, human? Why are you laughing? Why is it still on my head? I hope you go shopping and get trampled. It would bring me joy.”

“Tucker writes everything. I proofread,” Kirk insists. (If this seems weird, remember that Kirk is a guy who pushes his cat in a stroller down Fayetteville Street.) “Having an Instagram account from the point of view of a pissed off, overweight cat is a little more interesting than, here’s Tucker walking down the stairs.” 

Note: Tucker hates stairs.

Tucker’s sarcasm and irreverence bordering on nihilism—“humanity’s collective IQ continues its death spiral towards nonexistence,” he posted with a close-up in January—caught on. Followers came by the thousands. So did the local TV news, and then more followers, and then invites to hang in the “selfie booth” at events, and then more followers, and now me, and probably more followers. A flight attendant from Oregon tracked Tucker down during a layover. Another woman supposedly flew from Buffalo just to see him.

I imagine Tucker hates all of this.

Kirk says he’s not going to try to monetize Tucker’s fame. After all, the old man could drop dead any day now.

“People just enjoy seeing him,” Kirk says. “I’m glad that he’s able to provide such happiness.”

If you want to catch Tucker before the Grim Reaper does, your best bet is around lunchtime on Fayetteville Street. Don’t let your kids pet without asking—Tucker’s been known to nip, though he’s missing teeth—but Tucker usually tolerates gentle worship. And don’t compare him to a dog; he finds that insulting, Kirk says.

Tucker’s also cool with selfies. Just don’t expect him to smile.

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at ltuass@indyweek.com. 

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One reply on “This Local #FatCat Has More Followers Than You”

  1. The type of person who calls older animals gross, accurately or not, is the same type who gives their pets away when they have children and happily houses their ailing grandparents in retirement homes — a person easily inconvenienced. But that’s probably not the author. I mean, someone “probably” thinks Tucker is adorable, right?

    I’m being mean, sorry.

    I will point out that although Tucker has become a sensation, he is only just bordering on the definition of “meme.” There are too few derivative works with varying degrees of social application to consider him as such (the term “meme” is overused in describing specific socio-cultural phenomena — so cut that shit out).

    So don’t pigeonhole Tucker. I’m fact, I would hazard a guess that most downtown (read: capitol district) folk enjoyed his company long before his foray into social media.

    I used to hang out with him on the courthouse steps after a date with the law. He would occasionally accompany me the few feet from the front doors of The Oxford to Sono in exchange for a light cheek scratch. He is urbane and genteel. He keeps vigil in the shade.

    We rightfully worship this tremendous feline. If you want something to call gross, go do more reporting on the NCGOP.

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