(all photos in this post are courtesy of other people’s cats I’ve befriended on the street, and the lovely cats at the wonderful Sheffield Cat Shelter, where I am lucky to be a volunteer)
While this is not a linguistic post as such, it does address the issue of pets and animal rights, which I am very passionate about.
For those who haven’t had the dubious pleasure of going to one, cat cafes sprouted around the world in dazzling speed in the last two decades. It began with the Taiwanese Cat flower Cafe opening their doors to their cats and folk in 1998 with the aim to provide lonely jaded urban dwellers with access to cats. However, this trend really took off when the Japanese Neko no Jikan Kita-honten in Osaka gave people living in small, rented flats the opportunity to be around cats again in their cafe. These cat cafes are now found in many cities worldwide and I have also visited a few in my travels, experiences which raised questions regarding pet-ethics and animal rights.
In the UK many animal charities criticise cat cafes for not providing cats with an appropriate environment such as access to the outdoors, keeping too large a number of cats, ignoring cat personality mismatches that lead to aggression and unhappiness, not to mention the lack of proper regulation of the cafes.
“Until the day all breeding stops (hopefully by way of government policy), people should adopt companion animals from sanctuaries and shelters“
Let me begin by situating myself in this discussion. As a vegan and animal rights activist I do not support the notion of pet ownership. For me, while I take the argument that dogs and cats today are an adapted species, symbiotically living with humans, I witnessed this through my vet studies and working at a vet clinic as a man-made problem that involves many levels of cruelty to animals from breeding to improper care (that often leads to death of the animal) and abuse. My vision is that all animal breeding for human purposes (including the meat, dairy and egg industries) will halt, and eventually and gradually all ‘pets’ be retired in sanctuaries and homes – to extinction. This may indeed be controversial and I am saddened to imagine a world with no dogs or cats to cuddle, but this feeling simply highlights to me my very own anthropocentric selfishness. There can be a whole post written about this but I do not want to detract from the aim of this discussion. Until the day all breeding stops (hopefully by way of government policy), people should adopt companion animals from sanctuaries and shelters.
The underlying assumption regarding pet ownership that supports the adoption of rescue animals is that we are able to glean whether our furry friends are reasonably happy. Anyone who cohabited with a cat (or dog! or ratty!) has developed an understanding of their companion’s moods. and vice versa. A mutual language most positively occurs. Of course, we can never know definitively how animals feel or what they think which, to me, represents the most important caveat in support of pet ownership.
In what follows I will attempt to put forward some concerns related to cat cafes from personal observation and readings. I don’t want to drag any particular cat cafe into this discussion but rather outline my thoughts on this issue. While cat cafes vary in sizes, care and approach to their establishments, I believe they face some or all of the following challenges:
The obvious question of the suitability of the environment
Let’s get this obvious stuff out of the way first. Clearly, some cat cafe spaces do not allow cats access to the outdoors nor do they regulate the temperature inside the establishment. As it is a cafe, the cats are constantly exposed to human food, cakes and the like that can be harmful if ingested. Although most cat cafes require prior booking and attempt to regulate the number of people at any one time in the cafe, the cats are still exposed to a never ending stream of different people coming and going and anyone who has been in a regular cafe knows that this can be tiring and irritating. The space of the cafe itself is often too crowded and noisy, not giving the cats a break. Animal behavioural studies have found that at times, cats would pretend to sleep to avoid receiving attention. Well, if they are cats at the particular cafe I’ve been to, pretending won’t help. Customers are not discouraged (albeit in some cafes I’m sure they are) from disturbing the cats while they’re resting. Not having access to fresh air and a walk outside, I have personally witnessed cats vying to go outside, attempting to sneak past the double security doors -alas unsuccessfully.
A proper business plan – if you go under, what will happen to the cats?
It is a well established fact that catering businesses are a fragile sector and most go out of business within two years of opening their doors. Although it may seem reasonable at first thought to embed a charity within a business model in order to generate funds, considering the precarious nature of this type of venture, without an appropriate and solid business plan that sets clear contingencies for adverse business turnout, the cats could find themselves back on the streets. By the way, this is also goes for many of the animal sanctuaries who may have their hearts in the right place but risk the lives and futures of their animals by not engaging with proper planning and risk mitigation.
Sourcing of cats and types of customers
While some cat cafes have a strong ethos of not engaging with the commercial sector of animal breeding and approach their cafe as a social and animal care enterprise, some cat cafes view their endeavour from a purely profit making stance. Therefore, cats may be bought from breeders, further entrenching the vicious cycle of stray cats (potentially not neutering them), and supporting an exploitative industry. In relation to this, we should also ask what kind of clients does this attract? Do the people who frequent cat cafes do so in order to financially support the cat cafe as a you would a sanctuary? Because if not, this is no different to going to the zoo, a cruel prison most readers I’m sure would not support. Does the ethos (discussed further below) of the cat cafe influence the motivation and types of people who visit? (By the way, this would be an interesting research project if anyone would like to collaborate).
“We can ask: what does the cat cafe stand for?”
Some cat cafes boast re-homing their cats. While in principle this sounds like the best scheme, combining more comfortable shelter than provided by a traditional cat shelter with socialisation that is so vital for the re-homing process, in practice this presents a number of obstacles.
Firstly, cats like most animals form bonds with humans and other cats. The re-homing turnover in the cat cafe cannot be the priority for the cafe nor is it feasible. Let me elaborate on this point. In a ‘real’ cat shelter, keeping a cat in a room or cage costs money. Approximately £87 per day (for a good shelter). Therefore, the aim of the shelter is to re-home. Full stop. Cats occupying space and resources that another cat in need could have is the driving force behind the hard work of a cat shelter (not without its problems, admittedly). Conversely for a cat cafe, there are other considerations and priorities to contend with. To start with, most cat cafes’ (as is the case for any charity really) priority lies with securing funds through sales and as it is a business, most (human) resources go on cultivating the business, leaving little time for re-homing endeavours (which are very demanding and include vetting possible homes which as can be imagined takes a lot of time in relationship building).
Another big problem that is created by the very nature of a cat cafe that allows the cats to get to know one another and staff, as I mentioned earlier is bonding. Because the cats spend a long time with others due to the low turnover rate, they get attached to their friends and carers which makes re-homing rather painful and difficult. In cat shelters, volunteers and staff routinely rotate between the cats as to minimise this bondage (but also allowing cats to get used to being around humans). Another related issue that also touches on the problem of sourcing mentioned in the previous point above is that of what I will call ‘star’ cats. A cat cafe, wanting to attract clientele (=funds) with the best of intentions would opt for cats that are ‘interesting’. By this I mean cats that would be attractive or different so as to draw people’s attention. This then could entails choosing kittens rather than older cats, buying specific breeds, and so on. Some of these cats become icons for the cat cafe (on Instagram) and regulars’ favourites, making the cafe reluctant to re-home them, and thus lose their ‘star’.
The last question to consider in under this section is post-rehoming care. Most cat shelters have a procedure in place for keeping track of how the adopted cats are doing, for example by obligating the adopting family to only visit the shelter’s veterinary practice. Do cat cafes have similar protocols in place and could they spare the human resources to follow up on this?
Qualification of staff
As I have not formally investigated this, having a cursory look through different cat cafes, none boast their experience or qualification in caring for rescue cats nor do they screen for staff who possess appropriate qualifications. While it is true that cat owners, like those who own the cats in the cafe are not screened for qualification, this raises a the question of the role the cat cafe plays: does it act as a type of cat shelter? If so, the staff should be fully vetted and qualified (yep, taking the pun) as other staff in respectable charities are, or at the very least have a care plan for the cats with regular vet trips. However, if the cat cafe is not claiming to be a stop between forever homes then there is an even more urgent question of legitimacy. Indeed, loving cats is not enough.
Ethos and veganism
Lastly, we can ask: what does the cat cafe stand for? Not all cat cafes have been established with the ethos of promoting compassionate adoption and raising awareness of the problem of stray cat misery and poor treatment of animals in general. I don’t wish to get into the discussion of whether cats should go vegan, but the cafes themselves, while some do offer vegan options, suffer from a lack of pro-intersectional stance in their activity. By this I mean that caring for animals extends to more than just cats. As I see it, if a cat cafe’s ethos is to promote compassion and protection of animals it should do so, loud and proud and extend it to all animal rights and human rights. I see a cat shelter as a hub of positive activism, where the rescue of the resident cats is only a small portion of what the space offers. In other words, what good does it do if the cat cafe rescues cats, but serves cow’s milk and a ham sandwich? What good does it do if there are no flyers promoting a feminist action or a gay parade?
Finally, although I recognise there are far worse cruelty and mistreatment causes to fight against than cat cafes and indeed my priority in the protection of animals does not lie in this single issue, cat cafes remain troublesome. There isn’t a conclusion on this from me, at least not at this time, but I do find myself leaving the cat cafe with a bitter-sweet aftertaste, and not from the coffee and vegan cake I had.