Jim Boelke tells us how his love of cats helped him start a million-dollar empire.
One of the most popular cat toys is made of steel wire and rolled cardboard and can be purchased for less than three dollars. Simple but genius, right?
We got the scoop from Jim Boelke, who invented the Cat Dancer in college and turned it into a million-dollar business.
What inspired you to invent a cat toy?
I was putting myself through college in the mid-1970s and had three part-time jobs, one of which was taking welfare recipients to different city departments in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. We would stop by the animal shelter to clean the cages and socialize the animals. It was so tiny, the size of a three-car garage. The cat room wasn’t much bigger than a closet. At that time there weren’t no-kill shelters, so a lot of animals got put down. One day a woman brought in two kittens with eye infections. I knew they wouldn’t find homes and would be euthanized. I had no money and my room-mates weren’t keen on the idea, but I couldn’t let the cats die. So I adopted them. I named them Jake and Elwood, after the Blues Brothers. They turned out to be the reason I came up with the Cat Dancer.
How was the idea born?
My evening job was sweeping up scrap metal at a factory. One night I picked up a piece of wire with cardboard strips attached to it and bent it around. I thought, ‘I bet my cats would like this.’ When I brought it home, they chased it and did back-flips until they were exhausted. I’d bring it out when we had parties. People began asking me for one of their own. I made those wire cat toys with pliers and tin snips and just gave them away.
How did you build the Cat Dancer into a business?
In the early 1980s, I suffered from cluster migraines. I was either debilitated by the pain or lethargic because of the medication. I couldn’t keep a job with a normal schedule, so I was looking for a business to start. I had about $1,500 in savings and thought, ‘Let’s see if I can get this cat toy into a store.’
What was the process like?
I went to as many stores as I could and finally found a distributor. I even bought an RV and drove from city to city, building my base. My customers were loyal. I’ve never found a cat that didn’t love this toy. People think it’s just a wire, but it’s a specific type of wire and lure. We also have good packaging and the best cat toy name on the market.
How did you come up with the name?
I originally called it Kitty Flip. Then my brother introduced me to a friend in marketing who was convinced the toy needed a new name. It came to him suddenly and he shouted out, ‘Cat dancer!’ I’ve tried to find him to thank him but never could.
Have you had other cats besides Jake and Elwood?
They’ve all been rescues. Before Jake and Elwood, was Buddy. Then I had Max for 19 years. When my daughter was young we got Spike and Otis. Spike is still with us, along with Cooper and Blue. I describe Cooper as the Robert Wagner of cats—he’s seriously handsome.
And Cooper inspired a new Cat Dancer product?
Yes, the Pro Model. When I adopted him, he was in a cage with no toys. We did some experimenting and made a Cat Dancer with a shorter wire and a handle with a clip that can attach to the bars of a cage. It vibrates when there’s any disturbance in the cage, making the lure dance so the cat can play.
Why is pet adoption so important to you?
There are more than three million cats in U.S. shelters. They need homes. We give away about half of the Pro Models we manufacture to rescue shelters to help keep their cats happy while waiting for forever families.
What cat-apulted the Cat Dancer to fame?
Leading up to the 1980s, dogs were the far more popular pet, but in 1991 Cat Fancy magazine said there were three things that improved America’s relationship with cats: the introduction of premium cat food, clumping litter, and the Cat Dancer, since we offered the first interactive cat toy. Before the Cat Dancer, the only cat toys were furry stuffed mice and balls with bells on them.
Tell us about the decision to make your factory solar powered.
I always wanted to be sustainable. We all need to give back to the planet. The solar panels will eventually pay for themselves. Since noting that we’re a solar-powered operation on our packaging, we’ve had a 20 per-cent increase in profits. I’ve never seen such a dramatic increase.
Why do you think cats like the Cat Dancer so much?
I consider myself a bit of a cat behaviorist. The lure is the cardboard. Cats love the smell of it. The wire we use is bouncy and springy—cats are attracted to the motion. The unpredictability of the wire makes the lure jump around, which reminds them of bugs and brings out their hunting instincts.
And their dance moves?
That’s the best part!