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Opera North - The Little Greats

Cat Café

28 March 15 words: Penny Reeve
There's pussy (cats) galore in the newest joint in town. Opinions are divided about the place, so we had a natter with the owner

Why a cat café? And why Nottingham?
I saw something on rabbit and cat cafés in Tokyo, so I mentioned it to my husband and he looked at me like I was insane, but then it started to dawn on him that it was a great idea. My husband and I are both from Nottingham, so that’s why we chose here.

Are you worried the Kitty Café will be a fad that dies out?
We know it could be a fad and there’ll be an initial surge for the novelty value, but we’re not just about the cats. I’ve got a hundred varieties of tea, an Italian barista and chef in the kitchen who’ll be making top quality food at Nottingham prices. We’re also working as a cat rescue, so there’ll be adoptable cats. There’ll also be a kitty cat club with membership perks and an invite to our exclusive annual kitty cat ball. I know that other cat cafés have quite a substantial entrance fee - we have no entrance fee whatsoever. It will be a standard café with standard prices, with the added bonus of cats.

Besides tea, what will you be serving? Do the cats help make the food?
They’re too hairy to make the food, I’m afraid. The kitchen will be completely sealed so the cats can’t get in there, for health and safety reasons. We’re starting with paninis and sandwiches, then we’re going to expand from there. We have gluten-free and vegan options. We’ve got an Italian baker and she’s been making some of the most amazing cakes.

What about the milk? Where’s that sourced from?
The milk? Local suppliers…

Cows?
Yes. Oh no, the milk doesn’t come from the cats!

They have nipples, they can be milked…
I can just imagine the kitty farm… Oh no! Poor cats.

How are you going to fund the cat part of the café?
The cats will be supported by the café, and vice versa. With the kitty cat club, people can sponsor a pod, and a cat within a pod.

Who is the café aimed at?
Mainly cat lovers, but also novelty seekers and tourists. We are something quite unique.

Are kids allowed in? They can be a bit grabby…
Kids are allowed in. I have a ten-year-old and a two-year-old, so not allowing kids would be difficult. But we have a set of house rules that everybody has to agree to on entry which involves the safety of the cats, including how to manage children around cats. We are creating a dedicated child area too. If you’ve got kids, staff might bring over some kittens, or Hugo, cos he’ll play with anybody.

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Hugo: Likes playing with Newton's tail

What about guide dogs?
We wouldn’t turn away people with guide dogs. Guide dogs are normally very well trained so they wouldn’t be interested in cats, and we’d work with the person to find a suitable place for them to sit within the café. We’d bring cats over to them that are particularly dog friendly. Hugo would be great, he loves dogs. He likes to lick them. Guide dogs can come and get a lick on the nose from him.

You’ve been liaising with rescue shelters...
We’ve had some successes like Firefly Cat Rescue and some not so much. We’re in a very privileged position where we can be quite selective about who we work with and we’ve only gone with people that meet the standards we’ll be adhering to ourselves. As we’re operating as a rescue ourselves, we can be very choosy about how we do things, so our kittens won’t be able to leave until they’re six months old and they’ve been neutered and microchipped.

Neutered… I guess you don’t want the little furry babies around…
It sounds amazing, but practically… If there’s gonna be children, it’ll be, like, “Look away, Jimmy!”

How did you choose the cats?
We had to be very careful. We’ve got a dedicated team of staff who are fabulous: veterinary nurses, animal behaviourists, nutritional specialists. They’ve all worked with animals, cats in particular, so we’ve got a great wealth of knowledge. It’s about meeting the cats several times to make sure we know their personality. We also try to find out a bit of history about the cats which can be a bit difficult, especially when they’re rescued. It wasn’t an audition process like X Factor, but the ones that could do backflips were definitely in.

So are all the cats rescued?
Not all of them, but the majority are surrendered or rescued.

What cats do you have so far?
We have twenty cats right now. They’re a lovely mix of moggies. I love moggies. They come in all different shapes and sizes; like Panzer who’s huge, then there’s Mia who’s a little skinny minnie. But with my two, Popcorn is a little Persian, and Hugo is a ragdoll.

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Newton: Likes cuddling Popcorn
 

Do you look for certain personality traits?
I look for a range of personalities as we’re creating a colony. We need the queen cat who rules over the other cats, one who’s a little bit shy and will give into the other cats, one who will be really outgoing and one that stands back and watches. Cats are like people - they have different personalities and mannerisms. I’ve got two at the minute called Bill and Ted, they’re ridiculously clever. When we first got them, they did a disappearing act and ended up in the same pod. They love each other and they’re identical, so it takes me about ten minutes to work out who is who.

I go for what would work for the colony. That’s what’s important. If the cats are happy, the people are happy, the café is happy. They’ve got to have a socialisation period and it’s obviously not just us chucking twenty cats into a room and going “Good luck!” We’re meeting them gently, working out who’s better with who, making sure that when they do meet they’ve got their hiding holes and places to go. We’ve socialised them in an environment that they can recognise as their home.

What would happen if a cat developed a long-term illness?
All our cats have daily and weekly health checks, and are visited by vets. Any treatments they might need will be fully funded by ourselves. If an animal needed a long-term health plan, we have fourteen members of staff who are like, “I’ll just take all the cats!” So we would be able to foster them out to members of staff, and if we felt they would do well somewhere else, we would rehome them.

Another cat café came under fire after it was deemed a stressful environment for the cats, how are you responding to that criticism?
Again, we’re not just chucking twenty cats in a room and expecting them all to get on and be fussed 24 hours a day. Each cat is rigorously health checked every single day - I’ve got veterinary nurses, behaviour experts – every cat will be assessed not just on its physical health but on its mood and how it’s acting. Sometimes they might need a day in a pod for a bit of chill out. If they need to spend a week in somebody’s house in a foster setting, that’s what we’ll do.

Do they have a safe haven away from people?
They do. We have a room set out for them that they can access through tunnels. It’s where their litter is, and they have beds up high. If they want to get away from people, they can completely escape. It’s accessible only to the staff.

Is the café their full-time home?
Yes, but they’re adoptable. There’s an adoption process, of course. If someone expresses an interest in a cat, we would expect them to come back in a week and continue that interest, then we’d do a home visit. It can’t be a spur of the moment, “Oh, I love him! I’ll take him now!”

Are they all house cats?
Yes, they will be. We’ve got an exercise wheel coming so we can exercise the cats - like a giant hamster wheel. We get a cat, a laser pen, and it’s “Run, cat! Run!” They’re fully house-trained. The cat poo is completely out of the way.

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Popcorn: Dislikes cuddling Newton
 

What about the scratching and biting hazards?
It’s about making people understand the trigger points that can cause them to scratch or nip. There is a rule that nobody can pick up the cats. You can ask a staff member to bring the cat to you, but you can’t handle the cats yourself, because some cats love it but other cats hate it. As long as the cat is happy to interact with you, we’re happy for you to interact with the cat. The cats we have are known to have temperaments that makes it unlikely that they’ll lash out, but there is always the risk. I have a few scratches on my hand just from playing. It happens. They’re cats, they have claws. The staff are trained to see any trigger points and if they do, they will intervene immediately.

Is there something for people to sign before entering?
Yes. It’s not necessarily a legal document, but there’s an understanding.

The cat has to make the first move…
If you’re sat there feeling like you’re not getting any cat interaction, just speak to one of our members of staff. They’ll have a think about what cat is suitable to bring over.

It’s said that spending time with cats can be quite therapeutic. Are you going to have specific quiet time for people who’d like to use the café for that purpose?
We’ll be inviting groups in in the near future – people with learning disabilities or mental health issues, people that are bereaved. We have to devise specific rules around that because obviously there can be a risk factor surrounding the animals involved in these sort of engagements, so we’re working very closely with organisations to sort things out.  

How did the Kickstarter go? Did you reach your target?
We went over it and raised £6,000. We were open and honest about the fact that the Kickstarter was there to raise our profile. We’ve made some amazing friends in our customers, they’ve been behind us 100% and have given up their time to come and support.

Do you have a secret favourite cat?
I can’t have a favourite! But Hugo is so lovely - he surrenders to kittens. My weakest spot is for Popcorn because she came to us from a bad breeder. She was in very poor health and came to us a little too early. She was extremely poorly so I spent the Christmas period stood in the vets, sobbing my heart out for a couple of hours each day. She had a virus and, because she was so little, there was not a lot they could do other than put her on a drip and hope for the best. She’s a fighter. She batters Hugo.

How would you rate yourself on the crazy cat lady scale?
I’ve got to be the craziest. I’m living every crazy cat lady’s dream. I walk into places and say, “I’ll have them all.” With the amount of money that we’ve thrown at it, you’d be hard pressed to find another crazy cat lady who’s invested that much into cats.

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The happy cat family
 

What happens if a cat goes missing?
We have a two-door lock system controlled by staff, so the cats can’t get to the road or anything. If your bag is moving, it might be a little bit obvious. The kittens are watched like hawks because obviously a kitten is a lot easier to steal than an adult cat, but all cats are microchipped -  we’re just having a member of staff trained to microchip herself, so if we get any new ones we can microchip on site. Our fire exits are alarmed too, so if anyone tries to open that, all hell breaks loose. It’s for the safety of the cats as well, so if anyone happens to go out that way and leave the door open, the cats aren’t escaping.

Cats are notorious assholes. If they’re being shitty with a customer, will they get time out in the pods?
We’d take it as a sign that they’re stressed. It’s about recognising that there’s a reason and they need a time out.

How about bringing in any treats for the cats?
An absolute no no. We have to manage the diets of the cats, and I know it’s great to give a cat a bit of a treat, and people might think it’s only one, but if it’s only one by forty people a day, they’ll get a bit fat. But not just that - it’s about monitoring their food intake. If a cat’s not eating, it’s a good indicator of the beginnings of illness. If they’re stressed, they won’t eat. We might be thinking there’s something wrong with a cat when he’s actually just stuffed himself with tuna.

Can I bring my cat?
I’m afraid not. All the cats have to be vetted before they come in. It might cause a bit of disruption. I’ve got this image in my head of opening day and a queue down the street with a load of cats tucked under people’s arms.

Will there be charges for different experiences? Will you be able to have a one-on-one with a cat?
It’s not something we’ve devised straight away but it’s definitely something we’d look into. We’ve had a lot of celebrity interest - I won’t name any names, but we might have some evening sessions for our kitty club members to meet a celebrity and spend time with cats.

Will you put them in cute little outfits for Christmas?
It’s so divided. Maybe hats. Some people are like “Oh my God, it’s so cute!” Other people are like “Oh my God, no. Don’t do that to cats.” It’s a difficult one.

Anything else you’d like to say?
Expect fluffy friends and friendly staff who are willing to answer all your questions. I want to make this a really great environment. Everything’s about relaxation - just taking a little slice of kitty heaven in the middle of a busy day.

Kitty café opens on Saturday 28 March 2015.

Kitty Cafe Website 

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