To spur adoptions, an Oakland CA puts cats among patrons

December 16, 2o14


At the Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center in Oakland, Calif., customers can
mingle with cats that need a real home to go to. It opened in late October
and has arranged 52 cat adoptions. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — On a sun-drenched Saturday, Eddie Metairie wandered around
the Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center, past the miniature-golf-size buildings,
cat perches and a bed shaped like a tuna can as he followed Lucia, an
independent-minded brown tabby.

Going to a shelter to find a cat in a cage “is heartbreaking,” said Mr.
Metairie, a project manager at a hotel supply company, but the Cat Town Cafe
“feels organic.” He was having fun.

By the time his $10-an-hour playtime was up, Mr. Metairie had made plans to
take the cat home and rename her Amélie.

The Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center, which opened in late October and has
arranged 52 cat adoptions so far, claims to be the first permanent cat cafe
in the United States. Customers line up for locally brewed strong coffee,
handmade bagels and “vegan fig nut pop tarts” (the proprietors clearly know
their audience). When it is time to visit the cat zone, visitors push
through glass doors to another world of lounging cats, all of them
candidates for adoption. There are no cages.

A co-owner of the cafe, Adam Myatt, chatted as Lucia checked things out. It
costs $10 an hour to play with the cats. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York
Times Cat cafes are well established in Japan, where there are also owl
cafes and penguin bars. There, customers are typically people who need their
cat fix, because many apartment buildings in Japan do not allow cats; few
cafes serve as adoption centers.

In the United States, there have been fitful efforts to establish similar
businesses in various cities, but health department rules against keeping
animals in the same place where food is served have gotten in the way.
Demand, however, is fairly obvious: A pop-up cat cafe in New York City, open
for only a few days this year, drew an almost comically long line of
customers and high level of attention online.

So cat-loving entrepreneurs here have largely ditched the Japanese model in
favor of a charitable one that separates the cats from the food and
emphasizes adoption. Since Cat Town opened here in Oakland, cat cafes have
sprung up in Denver and in Naples, Fla. On Monday, the first permanent cat
cafe in Manhattan — Meow Parlour, at 46 Hester Street — opened, started by
the owners of Macaron Parlour, a pair of Manhattan bakeries.

When word got out that Meow Parlour was coming, so many people signed up for
appointments that the cafe’s website crashed. In 20 hours, 1,000
appointments were filled, said Christina Ha, a co-owner.

More cat cafes are planned for San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. With
the popularity of cat videos and the emergence of individual cats as
name-brand stars — if you have not heard of Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat, consult
Google — the understudy to man’s best friend seems to be taking center

The Cat Town Cafe & Adoption Center offers space for patrons to play with
cats that are available for adoption. It is the first permanent cat cafe in
the U.S.; such cafes are common in Japan. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York
Times “Suddenly, it’s O.K. to show off your cat,” Ms. Ha said. “You’re not a
crazy cat lady anymore — you’re the owner of a great cat.”

While visitors may view a cat cafe as a sort of indoor playspace for
cat-loving adults, the intent is serious. An estimated 1.4 million cats (and
1.2 million dogs) are euthanized annually, said Matt Bershadker, the
president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
of New York. Those numbers were much higher 10 years ago, he said. “Any
innovative effort” to encourage adoption “is extremely important,” he said.

Few animals thrive in shelters, with cats having an especially difficult
time. Many become sick, and most do not show well, said Joan Schaffner, an
expert on animal law and associate professor at George Washington University
Law School.

It used to be that animal shelters were located next to the town dump, said
Rich Avanzino, the chief executive of Maddie’s Fund, a rescue group that has
helped fund the Oakland cafe. Things have improved, he said, but, “most cats
still are caged.”

Mr. Avanzino continued, “That’s why Cat Town Cafe is such great idea — it
takes them out of an ugly environment and puts them in an appealing
situation where they can connect with lots of people who may adopt them.”

Robert McCafferty, a retired computer teacher, and Mary Fielder with
Winston, a cat Mr. McCafferty adopted as a companion for his cat Rudy, as in
Rudolph Valentino. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times Ann Dunn, a
co-founder of Cat Town Cafe, runs a rescue organization that finds homes for
cats. Her cafe houses older, shy cats that, if not adopted, likely would be
killed at a shelter. Ms. Dunn used to work in public housing and became
“obsessed with the problem” of unwanted cats. She posted adoption notices on
Craigslist, found foster homes for cats and “dreamed of a cat sanctuary with
a cafe.” she said. She decided, “If we said, ‘Come meet cats and adopt
them,’ probably people wouldn’t come,” but coffee and pastries seemed like a
low-pressure lure (and while the food is served away from the cats, people
can bring it in when they enter the cat zone).

She met Adam Myatt, who produced feral cat calendars, using models from his
Oakland neighborhood, and shared her obsession. They raised $40,000 on the
crowdfunding site Indiegogo to get started. Making money has never been the
issue; it is all about saving cats, they said.

One recent Saturday, a Swedish tourist came by Cat Town after riding San
Francisco’s cable cars. Parents brought their children. Leslie White came
with her inhaler, explaining, “I love cats, but I’m allergic to them.”

“If I have a maternal urge,” Ms. White said, snuggling, if momentarily, with
a seated cat, “it’s not toward humans, it’s toward cats.”

Cat Town has a liberal return policy. A few people who had been providing
foster homes decided the cats “were not a good fit,” Ms. Dunn said, and
returned them. But that is the exception, and Mr. Myatt predicted that
within a year, the cafe will have placed 300 cats in homes. It charges a $50
adoption fee for one cat and $75 for two, and cats with medical issues are

Ms. Dunn serves as matchmaker. She listened to Robert McCafferty, a retired
computer teacher, who said he needed a companion for Rudy, as in Rudolph
Valentino, his old cat. (It was not clear who had the greater need for the
additional cat, Rudy or his owner.)

Ms. Dunn introduced Mr. McCafferty to Winston, a white cat with black
splotches who plays well with others.

“I like the companionship — it’s unconditional love,” Mr. McCafferty said as
he glanced approvingly at Winston, curled in the tuna can bed. Mr.
McCafferty was smitten, if not by the name then by the cat. He eagerly
filled out adoption papers and borrowed a cat carrier from Cat Town, then he
and his wife took Winston home.