I’m excited to announce that today’s guest writer is I HAVE CAT fan and Londoner Birgit K., who will provide us with an insider’s view of the newly opened UK cat cafe! Forget those sterile reviews by CNN and MSNBC, this is the real deal!
Birgit and her partner have been sharing their home with one or more cats since they adopted their first cat Lizzie, who lived to the ripe old age of 19. Their current feline ruler is Lucy, another rescue cat.
Preface by Birgit
Tamar asked me to visit London’s first cat café, “Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium“, and interview its founder, Lauren Pears. I had high expectations and was not disappointed. A great deal of care has been taken to ensure the cats’ physical and psychological wellbeing.
When I arrived with my partner, a friendly young woman explained the house rules: no picking up or restraining the cats; no disturbing cats who are asleep or eating; no feeding the cats; no flash photography.
Upon entering the ground floor café, we found happy folks sitting at tables, and a cat playing enthusiastically with a patron. When we went downstairs, our attention was drawn to a couple of ginger boys playing in an amazing piece of furniture. It turned out to be a large repurposed wardrobe with holes cut into it and sisal-covered planks, cat houses and walkways added-on. It certainly made for an interesting place the cats could play – or hide– in!
The room itself was stylish in a slightly eccentric way, comfortable and inviting. We heard “oohs” and “aahs” when the cats did something cute (which was often). Before too long, it was time for my chat with Lauren. Below is a condensed version of our conversation. We enjoyed our visit and will definitely go back.
Interview with Lauren Pears at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium
What gave you the idea to name your café after Alice’s cat in Alice in Wonderland? I wanted a Wonderland theme … and also something that was quite British, because obviously there’s cat cafés all around the world, and I wanted this one to have its own, unique twist.
I noticed that your cats have very unusual and imaginative names. Did you name them? Some are obviously from mythology. They were actually mostly named by sponsors. As part of our crowd-funding campaign, a £500 contribution provided unlimited access to the Cat Emporium for free and the ability to name a cat. For example Artemis was named after the Greek goddess of the hunt because she was a little hunter when her sponsor met her and Loki (a shape shifter of Norse mythology) is quite mischievous.
Where did your cats come from? Our cats ended-up coming from the public. We had more people offering us cats than we could manage. When these guys were offered to us, the owner was leaving the country in a week and said “we’ve taken them to shelters, and they can’t take them, so you guys have to take them. We’re going to have to leave.”
So they all came from the same home? Most of them did and they’re all quite young. Six of them are brothers and sisters. Wookie and the two black kittens are from different homes. But they were gradually introduced to the main colony. The main colony set the tone and behaviours. They were the ones we raised from 5 weeks of age.
The only time we had social disorder was when we were introducing the black kittens, as they were slightly older than the others. They took a little longer to integrate than Wookie, who was grooming, sleeping and eating with the others after a week. We still kind of watch the black kittens because they have got very assertive personalities.
Do you wonder what they get up to when you’re not here? We watch them on CCTV (Closed Circuit TV) to make sure they are ok. They knock over the lampshades, which go flying onto the floor every night!
From what I’ve read it took a huge amount of planning, determination and hard work to get this up and running. What kept you going? I’d made such a commitment with crowd funding. Everybody put something in and I didn’t want to let people down. Knowing there were so many people wanting it to happen makes you dig your heals in and get on with it.
How were you certain there would be a demand for this kind of place in London? Crowd funding is one way of proving that, really. I am essentially in the target demographic. One of the lines of thought that was running through my mind at the time was, that I am never going to be able to have a pet here until I can buy my own home, move out of the city. And that’s going to be in a really long time …
You visited a cat café in Japan. At that time, did you have any idea that you might do something like that yourself? And thinking back were there things you knew you could do better? No, at the time I just went to see what it was about. Goodness yes I was a bit underwhelmed by the Japanese café. It wasn’t very comfortable. It was very small, and the cats only had one exit point between the cat-room and the human-free room. I thought they seemed a bit wound-up. I wanted to ensure my cats had proper places to go and rest and that things like water were being carefully monitored.
You’ve gone out of your way to make things safe and comfortable for the cats, from getting behaviorists to having vets on-call. Was there a particular person or piece of research that inspired you? Not really. Researching was quite difficult because there aren’t many precedents for predominantly indoor related cat colonies without a changing population. Indoor cat colonies are typically shelter environments with an ever-changing population, and that modifies their behavior and has a big impact on everything. So there isn’t much like what we’ve got here anywhere else in the world, except for in private residences, and typically those have varying levels of monitoring in regards to cat welfare.
I consulted a friend from Royal Canin, as well as a woman who works with the BSAVA (British Small Animal Veterinary Association). I met cat behaviorists Sarah Ellis, Vicky Halls and John Bradshaw who came to the café to check it out. So we’ve had some very well known behaviourists take a look. It’s too soon for them to endorse the café but they were satisfied when they came. The cats are showing good, relaxed behavior and sleeping in front of people, which means they are comfortable and feel safe.
Where do the cats go when they want to get away from it all? Well you see Donnie, he’s waiting by the door. He’s decided he wants a holiday, so that’s the holiday door. It’s the door to the staff room, they like to sit around when we are on the laptop, working. So sometimes they ask to just hang out with the staff for a little while and then they come back in. We’ve got Romeo who will actually go and put his hand on the door handle, “it’s break time, ladies,” and then we let him in.
Is the cat café the right environment for all cats? How do you know if you’ve picked the right ones for the café? Wookie’s mother was a lovely Persian cat. But because she was so unique and so different from the rest of the cats, she’d get fussed over so much that it became a bit overwhelming for her. We decided to become very mindful at that point of asking people not to overcrowd them and found after a week it was too much for her. She got re-homed straight away. A week later she was living in a cottage and is quite happy. If it’s not right for the cat, then the cat finds the right home.
Would you at some point take in cats in a separate part of the building and allow people to meet them for the purposes of adopting them out? There’s licensing issues that would stop us from doing that. Additionally, you’ve got issues of contagion management and isolation for new animals. We currently have hand-outs/fliers we give people, so if they do enquire about these cats and say they want to get one we give them a list of local cat rescue groups.
On your website you’ve got some very high requirements for and expectations of your staff. What were you looking for in terms of personality or experience? They need a certain confidence because you do need to tell people, “don’t do this please, don’t do that.” But also, you know, do it in a kind way. So try to divert their attention rather than making them feel they are being told off. And also they need high-energy levels because the cat carer job, means only being with the animals. You’re not allowed to touch food or plates.
I know you’ve grown up with animals, but have you learnt anything new about cats since you started the cafe? Definitely! I often see on social media, “cats don’t like this because my cat doesn’t like it.” Having a colony you see just how much personality variation there is. How very distinctly different they are in their preferences, habits and attitudes, even though they’ve grown up together and had the same life experiences. Petra is nothing like Romeo is nothing like Donnie. They are all so, so, so different. And yes, I kind of get a better sense of what are fairly universal truths about cats and what are not.
Have you thought of reaching out to, for example, pensioners or socially isolated groups who might benefit from the contact they would get here?There are a few initiatives we’ve got in mind. A number of my staff are particularly interested in working with Age UK. That’s one of the reasons that on our ground floor, we’ve been particularly mindful of accessibility. The entire tea room is accessible to wheelchairs as are the bathrooms. And also I’ve received e-mails about bringing in young adults of 18-24 with mental health issues who want to come and spend some time with the cats.
We are finding that the late afternoons, just before 4 o’clock, the cats are in siesta mode, and sometimes people who come with an expectation of having a really active play session are disappointed. So we are thinking of changing that time slot into one where we have a craft-afternoon.
So a patron comes to the cat cafe, and the cats are here, but their focus is learning how to knit or groom, or something like that. They’re still getting a really enjoyable experience but the cats don’t have the pressure to perform. I think I want to encourage that for the cats because really, when you are engaged in something else is when you are most irresistible to the animals as well. I think there are some who come to the café with this expectation that the cats will flock to them automatically, but that’s not how cats work.
Thank you so much for your time, and I’m sure that I Have Cat readers will really enjoy hearing about this. You are very welcome.
Tamar here: While I got a small taste of what a cafe cafe might be like here in NYC a few weeks ago, it doesn’t compare to the real deal. I’m ready to book my ticket just as soon as Lauren starts training the cats to serve tea. Just kidding!
A BIG thank you to Birgit and her partner for volunteering to take on this assignment. I think they did a bang-up job (don’t they say that in England?). I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did – I certainly learned a lot!