How Phoebe Cheong Taught Her Cat to Respect Her 200 Plants
The photographer, plant enthusiast and “crazy cat lady” shares her tips and tricks.
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It’s safe to say that, over the past couple of years, the popularity of houseplants has skyrocketed — and with good reason. The majority of us have been responsibly cooped up indoors and houseplants have offered respite, routine, and a connection to nature that we’ve been craving. For photographer Phoebe Cheong, the journey to plant parenthood began with two plants: a snake plant and an orchid. Today, her Brooklyn apartment is a verdant oasis of more than 200 plants on a brick building-lined street. It’s gained her a sizable following on her aptly named Instagram account, Welcome to the Jungle Home.
But the lush landscape of her domicile isn’t all that’s caught her fan’s attention: her tabby cat, Pixel, has a fandom of his own. You won’t get far on Cheong’s IG without seeing his royal majesty regally lounging on a plush, cream-colored bed; surveying the city street while perched atop a throne; or spending quality time with his mom. Although Pixel spends his life surrounded by an indoor jungle, he never treats the plants like his personal salad bar — which many of Cheong’s followers recognize as an astounding feat. In fact, how she keeps Pixel from sneaking a nibble is one of the most common questions that she gets. We reached out to Cheong to learn more about how she does it.
Can you tell me Pixel’s adoption story?
So, I’m actually very much a dog person. Growing up in Malaysia, cats were not really a common pet, so I never really knew much about them and what kind of affection they give. But I had really close friends with cats who I bonded with, so I was open to it. JP, who’s my partner, he’s always wanted a pet. So one day we stumbled upon an adoption event. And there was Pixel, this 10-month-old kitten. He was looking at us and we were looking at him. And then JP was looking at me with these big “kitty eyes.” Then an adoption agent picked up Pixel and put him on JP’s shoulder and that was it. I was like, how can I say “no” to this?
How did he get his name?
I’m a photographer and JP used to do video editing, so we were always working with pixels. It was actually JP’s dad who suggested it and we thought it was perfect!
Let’s talk about plants. How did you end up with so many?
I’m originally from Malaysia; I’m Malaysian-Chinese, and the country is primarily tropical. So I grew up surrounded by greenery — it was part of my natural habitat. But we also moved a lot. I’ve lived in five different countries. Everywhere we went, my grandma would have plants at home or a garden outdoors — so no matter where we lived, plants were always ingrained in my culture and my family values.
When I was going to move to New York by myself, my grandma brought me a snake plant. And she was like, “Take this to America.” I told her, “Grandma, I can’t do that. Security will fine me $1,000.” So I made her a promise that I would start off with a snake plant. We also always had orchids growing up. No matter where I moved to, I would treat myself to a new orchid. So that’s how it started. When I moved to New York, I got myself the two plants that I definitely needed to have, and not realizing how much I was missing my family, I started collecting plants that reminded me of home. Then next thing I know, friends who were visiting my apartment would say “Oh my god, it’s like a jungle in here.” That’s how my Instagram account got its name.
I read on your IG that you trained Pixel from a very young age not to eat your plants. How did you do it?
He was a super adventurous kitten. He loved to explore and bite things, so at first I put my plants higher up where he couldn’t reach them, like on a shelf or the kitchen counter. At 10 months old, he couldn’t reach them. But to keep him away from the plants as he got older, I read that cats don’t like citrus peels and citrus oils, so I would put lemon and orange peels in the soil. Eventually that stopped working, so then we got him cat grass, wheatgrass, and catnip to draw his attention towards those plants rather than my plants. Our last resort was a spray bottle, if he really misbehaved, but that was an extreme scenario.
Tell me about a time that he really got into trouble.
We got Pixel a week or two before my birthday and I bought myself a succulent and cacti bowl. And there I was, thinking, Well, it’s a sharp cactus — this cat isn’t going to touch it. So I placed it on the coffee table. Boy, was I wrong. I came home one day and he had pretty much dug up the entire bowl and pooped in it — which I didn’t find until later. But I caught him playing with the cactus as if it was a little ball.
It seems like he leaves plants alone now. Does he have his own little station?
Back when he was younger, he had a little wheatgrass, but he wasn’t really into it for some reason. He loved to play with my ponytail palm — like, bat it around — but he would never chew it. To him, it was just a toy. But I think having him when he was really young and training him not to touch the plants really helped. And maybe he felt that it was just part of his environment that he had to get used to versus being curious like, Oh, what’s this new thing that just came in?
You take such gorgeous photos of Pixel. Is he naturally a ham for the camera? Or do you have tricks for getting his attention?
It’s a little bit of both! In the beginning, people would be like, “Oh my god, Pixel is so photogenic!” And I’m like, “I’m a photographer, I take photos of everything.” But he is actually very photogenic and I’m not just saying that because I’m his mom. I feel like he knows his angles. When we call his name, he’ll give us a look. I think he knows when there’s a camera on him. I always say, when I whip out my phone he either loves it or he’s like, Not today. I was trying to take a picture of him in the sunlight earlier and I called his name, but he turned away like he was telling me, No, not right now.
You’ve also taught him some tricks! Was it hard to train a cat?
Pixel is a foodie, and we learned very early on that he’s motivated by food. So when he was younger, I was able to teach him some tricks. He learned how to sit, how to handshake, how to high five, and also how to do some sitting poses for photos.
Pixel even seems to have his own fan club.
Every Saturday, I post a picture of Pixel with my plants, and I always get a lot of questions about my experience with cats and plants. It’s really nice to be able to have a conversation with my audience and share tips and tricks. Sometimes I think they love Pixel more than me. [Laughs] Like the other day, I was at an event in New York and someone came up to me and she’s like, “This is gonna sound really strange, but are you Pixel’s mom?” Sometimes I wonder if he knows how much people love him.
So, since getting Pixel, would you consider yourself a cat person now?
I think I became a crazy cat lady ever since I got Pixel. I still love dogs, but I love him and now I appreciate cats a lot more now. Going back to my culture, having cats wasn’t really a thing. When we first got Pixel, I sent a picture to my dad and he was like, “That’s such a basic cat that you would get from the drains.” [Laughs] In Malaysia, there are a lot of stray cats that live in the drains. But now even my dad asks how Pixel is doing.
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Kat L. Smith
Kat L. Smith is a writer and editor based in Queens, New York. They have written for LIVEKINDLY about a wide range of topics related to sustainability, lifestyle, house plant care, and food. They share their apartment with their adopted dog, Layla, and Vivi, a one-eared cat.