After more than a decade of success in Asian countries, particularly Japan, the adorable phenomenon of cat cafes, where you can enjoy coffee and a snack while watching frolicking kittens, is finally coming to the United States.
And the first one is likely to be either Oakland's Cat Town Cafe or San Francisco's KitTea -- both of which are closing in on locations and should open by the end of the year, according to their organizers. Both are affiliated with rescue organizations, and both have used crowd funding to cover a substantial part of their startup costs.
Cat Town Cafe celebrated the end of its first fundraising drive on Saturday with a pop-up version of the concept. About 400 people filed in and out of the Naming Gallery, waiting for their turn to interact with a pair of orange tabby kittens named Owen and Davey.
Caitlyn Kilgore had already contributed to the Cat Town Cafe's Indiegogo fundraising campaign, but dropped by to check out the kittens. "My partner's allergic, so we can't have cats at home," she said, "So I want to get in some play time when I can."
Surprisingly, her partner, Collin Sullivan, was also interacting with Owen and Davey.
"I suppose if I were snuggling with them a lot and getting their dander or fur or whatever on my clothes, then that would be bad," he explained. "But hanging out with them and watching them play around while I have some coffee -- I think that would be just fine."
Allergy issues were mentioned by several of the wannabe cat cafe patrons as reasons why they'd like the chance to spend time with cats but don't live with any. Other reasons: uncooperative landlords, a lack of space, a nomadic lifestyle, other pets.
But Ann Dunn, founder of the Cat Town rescue and a longtime volunteer at Oakland Animal Services, hopes that at least some of their clients will be cat lovers who are in a position to become cat owners.
"The only reason we're doing this is to get cats out of cages and get them adopted quickly," she said. "You couldn't choose a worse environment for a cat than a shelter. So many cats have a cage reaction, and you have no idea what the cat is really like. All you see is their fear."
The experience at the cafe will be very different. For health reasons, the food service and preparation areas will be completely separate.
If the pop-up is any guide, Cat Town Cafe's adoption mission should be a success.
Cameron McKee of Bicycle Coffee had agreed to be the coffee provider for the day. "And then I got here this morning and saw these cats," he said, "and I knew that we were going to be taking them home. I got in an argument with my wife last night, so I figured if I called and told her I was bringing home two kittens, that would help work things out."
"And it did," said Momo McKee. She might have been the only person at the pop-up who's been to a working cat cafe -- several of them, in fact, in her native Japan. "They're all over Tokyo, even in small towns. I think it'll be great here, because as you can see at today's event, people are so nice, so happy, so peaceful, when they're with the cats."
The cafe is a joint effort of the Cat Town rescue and Hoodcats, started by musician and photographer Adam Myatt. "There's a ton of feral cats in West Oakland. I just started taking pictures of them, then I Kickstarted a calendar, then the East Bay Express interviewed me -- they gave me the 'Cat Man of West Oakland' name. I had a vision of trying to make a cat sanctuary or something in West Oakland that would help ferals.
"Then as a result of that article, I met Ann (Dunn). She's helped me get five kittens adopted, two Hoodcats adults adopted, three others in foster care to potentially get adopted. To go from just taking pictures of cats to working with rescues and meeting all these people who are helping ferals ... and now we're starting a cat cafe."
The Cat Man himself doesn't have a cat. "My roommate is allergic, so I don't get to bring any cats inside, which is kind of a bummer. But I have one cat who lives out in my backyard, I made a little house for him, and he's totally content to be the king of our backyard."
Myatt came up with the idea for a cat bed that's a replica of a cargo crane, like you see at the Port of Oakland, and two of his friends designed and built it. "For the actual cat cafe, we're going to get some bigger, meatier, metal cranes -- they're even talking about having them be functional, they'll go up and down, which would be awesome. But this initial crane, I've had a ton of people ask when they could get one - I didn't even think about that, but that's a great idea!
"Ann and Cat Town already have three years of experience of being a rescue, on top of the years of experience working with Oakland Animal Services. So I feel like we have the rescue thing locked down. So, if we have a kitten who's having a problem adjusting at the cafe, we have so many foster homes standing by who can take over.
"It's just bringing all of these Oakland people together to collaborate from the ground up. And all for the good of cats! Everybody's so excited by that."
Ann Dunn says: "The cafe part is going to be completely self-contained within the larger property. So you'll walk in, get your goodies, then leave that area and go in to the cat zone. And the cat zone, we're planning to have one space for the adult cats and a separate place for kittens.
"Our mission right now at Cat Town is (to focus on) cats that are really under-socialized, or shy, cats that aren't confident. Cats that are getting euthanized at the shelter because they're so stressed there.
"For the cafe, we're going in a completely different direction, so we're focusing on cats that are very confident, very flexible. We'll know they're good with other cats. We're hoping we can get groups of cats that already know each other and come in to the shelter together. But that's going to be the biggest challenge -- not just identifying the cats, but making sure they have a proper period to get acclimated. We're working with cat behaviorists."
"So you imagine if you went to a friend's house that had cats. Sometimes the cats are going to hide under the bed, sometimes the cats are going to come out and rub up against your legs. Everything (is) on the cats' terms. If they want to play, you can play with them. If they want to sleep, you can watch them sleep. It's going to be what the cats choose to do with you."
Dunn and Myatt are closing in on a space for the permanent cafe. And Myatt is setting off shortly on a research trip to Japan -- to visit the established cat cafes and study their best purractices.