By Michael E. Miller
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You see him on South Beach, svelte and silent, loping past the News Cafe, Mango's, the Clevelander. Turning heads. Drawing hungry hands that want to touch, to pet, to hold. On another night you catch a glimpse of those sapphire eyes through the crowd at CocoWalk. He's never alone. Someone calls his name. "Buster! Time to go home." He jumps into a red convertible, and he's off. What do you have to do to get your cat to act like that?
Ask Hector Castaner. He is the owner and trainer of Buster, the mostly Siamese cat who is poised to join the list of Miami's most glamorous and famous residents. Two-year-old Buster has made quite a splash in recent months on several locally produced television shows. And splash is the word. Among his many talents is swimming. Castaner seems literally to swell with pride as he displays photographs of Buster at poolside, Buster with front paws in the water, Buster swimming, wet Buster back on the ledge of the pool, daintily shaking water from his paws. Then there's the video: Buster riding his Styrofoam "surfboard" being pulled by a jet ski. Buster and Flame (another younger, less seasoned Castaner cat) riding in Castaner's car, Buster and Flame in their harnesses, Casta*er at the leashes, strolling through a park.
He is a high-strung man with wide-set eyes who speaks with emotion about cats (he has three in all) and their vast, untapped potential for training. "There are 60 million cat owners in the United States," he exclaims, referring to several recent published articles that claim cats have surpassed dogs as the nation's most-kept pets. "Why can't the number-one pet in the country go outside with his owner? If you go out with your cat on a leash, you're going to take care of your pet; a secure pet won't be killed by a car."
Castaner has been working very hard for the past nine months to make Buster a star and, by transference, to promote his training expertise. He is his own public relations agency, conscientiously making the rounds of TV stations, newspapers, and magazines. This on top of his real job as a counselor for teenage gang members in Metro-Dade's Juvenile Alternative Sanctions System. In addition, he contends with a serious case of diabetes that more than once has caused him to cut short an overscheduled day.
"I've been working with human behaviors and conduct for ten years," Casta*er says all at once, then takes a deep breath that seems to slow him down a little. Books with titles such as I'm OK A You're OK, Abusable Drugs, Sociology, and Alcoholism sit on his living-room shelves. A native of Havana, Casta*er says he was a dedicated Cuban tourism official until he became disillusioned with the difference between official rhetoric and reality. He fled to Miami in 1980 and studied psychology and drug dependency at the University of Miami.
"I have a very stressful job," he continues. "So in the last four or five years I've been working with cats, because I was very interested in observing the life with cats. There are so many things you can discover and research. I don't want to say I am a little bit tired of human beings, but working with human beings you get some kind of negative approach. I don't know what I have inside my blood, but I have a very good approach with cats."
He has appeared with Buster on Club Telemundo and the Maria Laria show on the Miami-based Telemundo television network; he is featured in a short piece in the April Selecta magazine, and says he'll begin writing a monthly cat column for enterese!, another Spanish-language magazine. Buster made his acting debut in a segment for Telemundo personality Raul De Molina on Ocurri cents asi. The short piece, which aired in January, explored the transition in the White House from the perspective of Presidential Pets. Buster played Socks, the Clintons' cat, aggressively frightening off Millie, the Bush family dog. Buster's acting is masterful; he trots in and out of doors convincingly (the set was a Coral Gables White House look-alike, according to Castaner) and is memorable in a climactic fight scene. Never mind the physical disparities (Socks is black and white, Buster a seal point Siamese), a good trained cat just isn't easy to come by, especially outside Hollywood, advises De Molina.
Castaner is beginning to market "Buster's Hollywood Cat Training Program," which consists of an audio cassette and an accompanying booklet written in both Spanish and sometimes-tortured English. Casta*er plans to produce a training video after he sells more of the cassette programs.
His training exercises cover basic cat tricks, such as not scratching furniture and coming when you call. Castaner also gives advice about how to bathe a cat, how to escort a cat into a car, and of course, swimming tips. Albert Iglesias, a veterinarian at Miami's Animal Welfare Society, served as an informal consultant as Casta*er was putting together his training program. Iglesias says he's impressed with the spectacular things Castaner does with his cats, but he also urged him to give as much emphasis to more basic cat-behavior and care questions: litter training, vaccinations, diet. Iglesias adds he's less enthusiastic than Castaner about cats' trainability. "It's very hard," he says in the amused and exasperated tone humans use when they speak of their cats owning them, or cats allowing them to live in their own homes. "They learn, but you have to have more patience, you have to be more repetitive, and put more time into it. I've been trying very hard to train my cat not to scratch my furniture, but it didn't work out."
The idea of training the allegedly untrainable cat has been occurring to a lot of people around the country lately, says animal behaviorist Warren Echstein, who should know. He's the author of the bestselling How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want, and perhaps more impressively, the resident animal expert on the Regis and Kathie Lee Show. "All of a sudden it's been the rage, people calling themselves cat trainers and behaviorists," Echstein says. "It scares me a little." But Echstein hastens to add he's long favored taking cats outside in harness and leash, partly as a way to combat what he sees as increasing boredom in domesticated catdom. "Look at the average cat's life nowadays," he says. "Eight hours a day watching General Hospital and eight sleeping. If people have a problem with their cat jumping on the kitchen counter or walking on the stove, it's probably because the cat is bored as hell and likes to be up high."
Echstein is adamant that nearly all cats can be trained, provided they're being trained to do things they want to do in the first place. And on that, he and Castaner agree: "If you want to train your cat successfully," Castaner concludes in his training cassette, "you have to look at things from a cat's point of view." Echstein adds: "The most important thing is removing the human ego. Get on the animal's level."
And Buster's level? Who knows? Castaner has already been to Miami's famous Zubi Advertising agency with an idea. They told him they couldn't use Buster right then, but they'd keep him in mind and his pictures on file.
But Castaner can already see it. He can taste it. A beer commercial featuring Buster. A feline Spuds MacKenzie. Here's Buster on a yacht under the brilliant Miami sun. He's surrounded by glamorous, partying women and men. Suddenly, from the shore, he hears the sound of a can of a certain brand of beer, maybe Miller, being popped open. Buster dives off the deck of the yacht into the turquoise water of Biscayne Bay, to the "Eeeks!" and "No Buster!"s of the women. He swims toward shore. A shark approaches, but Buster fearlessly swims on. He comes upon some surfers and catches a ride in on a wave. And finally he's on land, shimmying off the water. Bikinied girls run toward him with ecstatic cries. They have his ice-cold Miller. Close-up of Buster and the beer. Someone pops the top as the camera pulls back to show Buster with his Miller. Surrounded by beach babes.