Last November, on our way to a vegan bistro in Prague, my husband and I passed a so-called cat café, a coffee shop with free roaming cats. Whilst we were not able to visit, my first thought as a cat lover currently renting a place where companion animals are not permitted, was, "What a lovely idea." Later though, I had second thoughts: is such a café no better than a petting zoo, objectifying cats and forcing them to spend their days in a crowded and noisy room with no space to relax?
So I did a little research and discovered that not only is the concept not half as unique as I had previously thought, but also that it can vary widely. The idea originated in Japan, where a combination of an intense working culture and city accommodation with most landlords opposing feline friends led to the introduction of cat cafés as places for relaxation and company. On the one hand, the idea that people should be able to unwind implies that the atmosphere should be calm and safe for the cats too, but on the other, I neither speak Japanese nor have visited Japan, so I cannot verify how dominant any 'gimmicky' element was or is in these first businesses. Wikipedia, whilst admittedly not the most reliable of sources, uses the phrase, 'rent-a-pet,' to describe the now internationally expended market of cat cafés, which suggests that in some venues at least, the non-human residents are objectified, and there for human entertainment, rather than respected as individuals with rights.
Still skeptical, I read on. I learned that in the USA, due to food hygiene rules, food and drinks must be served in one room, whilst feline interaction takes places in another, whereas in Europe and Japan, cats are welcome to roam around as people enjoy their coffee. I also learned that whilst some cats live permanently at the venues, other businesses work in partnerships with shelters to arrange adoptions, and the latter is the practice at the first feline coffee shop that I finally visited myself, Pelišek, in Brno in the Czech Republic.
This huge café, of which I'm now a semi-regular customer, reassured me that at least some cat cafés take both the welfare and rights of the non-humans very seriously. Not only are there rules on each table, instructing guests not to wake sleeping cats, to ensure that children act respectfully, and to not offer their food, but the three large rooms have been modified with raised shelves and beds and imitation tree trucks for climbing, and a cat-sized door leads to an area where people, noise and lights can be escaped from. Each month, new cats and kittens move into the café from its partner shelter, and potential companions can spend time with the cats before adoptions are arranged based upon an application and compatibility assessment by the business owners. Is this the ideal way to (re)home? Possibly not, but in an area where companion animals are more frequently treated as commodities to be bought and sold, such promotion of shelters, which also takes the form of fundraising events, is a step in the right direction.
Are there cat cafés in your area? I'd love to read comments about your experiences in other parts of the globe; thanks for sharing!
Image courtesy of Danielle Elder, used unchanged under the terms of the Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).