Paw It Forward
Sitting on the floor, sipping freshly-brewed coffee, I attempted to entice an orange tabby to play with a ball that circled around a track.
She batted halfheartedly a couple of times, and then casually walked away. That’s what we cat lovers enjoy (and sometimes find confounding) about cats — they’re not going to pretend to be interested in anything they’re not.
At the other end of the room, a young girl swirled a feather wand around and around for an incredibly athletic gray kitty whose acrobatics would have scored a 10 at the Olympics! Across from them, two women sat perfectly still, their eyes glazed over in that Zen-like state that happens to humans who find themselves in the presence of sleeping felines. Thus describes my first visit to the Catopia cat cafe in Albuquerque.
The very first cat café on record, the Cat Flower Garden, opened in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998. The idea was simple: offer the residents of this crowded city, living in tiny apartments that didn’t allow pets, a place to just come and be with cats, to “provide relaxing companionship in what otherwise is stressful, urban life” (otherwise known as a cat fix).
The idea traveled across the sea to Japan and, by 2010, there were nearly 80 cat cafes there, according to Wikipedia. In Europe, cafes sprung up in the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Italy, England, France, Austria and Madrid, Spain, where they teach animal care classes and host flea markets, and yoga with cats, according to ConfettiTravel.com.
Some offer live music or art events, and all serve drinks (from tea to cocktails) and food, from pre-packaged snacks to local fare and even traditional Japanese food honoring the café’s origins. While the cafes in Japan were mostly for “visiting,” Europe took a humanitarian turn and began working with local shelters and animal welfare organizations to offer places for rescued cats to live or be adopted into forever homes.
Cafes in the U.S. followed that trend and, by 2014, neko cafes (neko means cat in Japanese) began springing up everywhere. One cafe, Cat Town in Oakland, Calif., helped reduce their local shelter’s euthanasia rate by 20 percent, and found homes for nearly 200 cats — all within seven months of opening.
In Seattle, Wash., one cafe began with a very special purpose. Caitlin Unsell had taught kindergarten in Japan and Vietnam, where she fell in love with cat cafes. When she returned to the U.S., she opened NEKO Cat Café, a place for cats who have tested positive for feline leukemia virus, or FeLV — cats, just like any other cat, with love to give and in need of a home, who can live for many years, some needing medical intervention more often than others. Caitlin was determined to give these cats “the sanctuary they deserve, and humans the kind of retreat they didn’t even know existed.”
Today, there are many FeLV cat cafes in the U.S., like Papa’s Cat Café in Columbia, Mo., named after Ernest “Papa” Hemmingway and modeled after his home in Key West, Fla. Papa’s houses FeLV negative cats, too, (in separate quarters) and by their third anniversary in 2021 they had found homes for 420 cats.
Adoption is never mandatory at any “neko” cafe anywhere in the world, but there are a few rules — make a reservation (this prevents overcrowding the cafe which makes it difficult to maintain safety and welfare of the cats,) little kids can only come at certain times (so there’s enough staff to monitor them), don’t bring your own cat and, if a kitty is sleeping, don’t wake him up!
I asked manager Sandy Dierks what inspired her to open Catopia.
“When the surgeon I worked for retired … my son asked what I would do if money wasn’t an issue. I answered that I would build an animal sanctuary” (the dream of many an animal rescuer.)
“I’m still a volunteer,” she said, “but with expenses covered … I can do what I love.”
Catopia’s partners include Albuquerque and Bernalillo animal welfare, Desert Paws NM, High Desert Cats, HART, Pawsitive Life and Barking Chance rescues.
She says they’ve been able to help quite a few special-needs cats, too, and feels “lucky to have a great group of customers who love cats.”
Make a reservation and visit, have some coffee, peruse cat- inspired arts and crafts, and just be with cats.
By the way, if you’re so inclined, Sandy’s Christmas wish-list includes clumping litter and canned food for the kitties — any kind will do!
Catopia is located at 8001 Wyoming Blvd. NE, Albuquerque. Visit catopiacatcafe.com, or call 505-508-4278.
Merry Christmas, everyone!