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A Feline First: Welcome, Would-Be Adopters, to the Nation’s First Cat Café

October 31, 2014
by Kate McKinley

Whether you’re a witch in need of a new familiar or a suburban family looking for a fluffy friend, one of the best ways to get a cat is to adopt, either from your local shelter or a rescue organization. But unfortunately, as UC Berkeley animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado says, a lot of people find the shelter environment depressing and don’t like to go there.

Rescue groups provide an alternative but often have difficulty bringing cats and people together in a way that doesn’t smack of animal speed-dating.

Enter the cat café. In one room, patrons can buy coffee and baked goods. In the other, they can watch adoptable felines thread through climbing structures, or pick up a feathered wand and entice kitty into hunting. Oakland’s Cat Town Café is the first in the United States, though plans are afoot in several other cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Seattle and Denver. (Three are in-the-works in Ohio, including Catmosphere, which is awaiting its liquor license to open a cat wine bar.)

Oakland’s premier cafe has only been open a week, but so far so good: Of the nine cats on hand for the October 25 opening, six have already found homes. Time with the cats can be reserved online for a $10 donation, though walk-ins are welcome (and free)—but the first two weekends are already booked solid.

The café is a venture of Oakland-based Cat Town, a rescue organization that takes cats from the municipal shelter who are having a hard time getting adopted and puts them in foster homes where they can relax. It came about from a casual conversation over coffee between Cat Town founder and president Ann Dunn and Adam Myatt, a sound engineer who volunteers with Cat Town and has a website devoted to pictures of stray cats in his Oakland neighborhood. They were talking about travel, Myatt recalls, when the subject of Japan’s feral cat island came up. A quick Googling for more information turned up cat cafés, where people pay for petting time with the kitties. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Or, more accurately, meticulous planning. Myatt went on a research trip to Japan to witness how the cafés actually work and get ideas for how to adapt the concept. As for making it through the various bureaucratic hoops, Dunn says they consulted the city’s health and zoning departments even before they began fundraising for the café. Their business plan includes multiple revenue streams—not just the coffee, but merchandising (Cat Town hoodie, anyone?), vending machines stocked with stickers and cat treats, a cut from sales in the café’s cat-themed art gallery, adoption grants from Maddie’s Fund, and a number of donation points.

Volunteers meet to organize the cat cafe.

They also consulted with Delgado, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate who, in addition to her research and teaching, co-owns the cat behavior consulting business Feline Minds. Delgado has penned her own concerns about the concept of cat cafés: “Will these cafes benefit the cats and advance our understanding of cat behavior and welfare? Or are we exploiting cats to sell coffee and our own ideas of what we think cats will like?” Still she acknowledges that the idea also is promising, while stressing that good design is crucial—as is monitoring the cats closely, and the humans, too.

“If done properly,” she has noted, “they can promote adoption, give cats a break from shelter cages, and give people who can’t adopt the opportunity to get a cat fix.”

So Delgado her business partner have worked extensively with Cat Town, helping train volunteers and fosters to read feline body language, properly introduce a cat to a new environment, and handle a stressed cat. Feline Minds advised on the setup of the cat portion of the café, including lots of vertical space, the hidey-holes cats love, and a separate spot the kitties can retreat to when they tire of the adoring public.

So how likely is it that a match made in a café will last once feline Felix gets home?

Delgado cautions that cats are very individual, so a blanket prognosis is difficult. Even the mellowest will need a day or two to adjust to a new place. The café cats, however, are all carefully prescreened to help ensure that they are fairly confident and able to deal with other cats, people, and new situations. In short, the volunteers at Cat Town seem to have done everything possible to make sure your new cat doesn’t turn into a hellhound.

Photos courtesy of Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center

Editors’ note: As the Cat Town Café prepares to celebrate its first birthday on October 25, we checked in with co-founder Adam Myatt to see how things are going. And the answer is: expansively! They took over the space next door and are using it as a quiet space for cats that are recovering from illness or surgery or just need a little extra time to adapt. The café has begun adding events in the Cat Zone, starting with Thursday-night yoga, cat-themed movie nights, and drawing classes with kitty models. Best of all, Myatt says they’re very close to 300 cats adopted out of the café and he’s confident they’ll come up to scratch by the official anniversary.

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