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Cat Defender

Exposing the Lies and Crimes of Bird Advocates, Wildlife Biologists, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, Exterminators, Vivisectors, the Scientific Community, Fur Traffickers, Cloners, Breeders, Designer Pet Purveyors, Hoarders, Motorists, the United States Military, and Other Ailurophobes

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Teahouse Cats Are Given Shelter and Work but Precious Little Job Security and No Legal Protections

"When it comes to the business of cat cafes, you can grow by opening more branches or expanding the scale of existing stores. But there is a limit to that. What happens to the cats once this isn't so popular anymore?"
-- Osamu Maeda of Neko JaLaLa

At least seven neko (cat) cafes have sprung up in Tokyo during the past few years. Circumstances vary but these are primarily small teahouses where patrons pay between eight and twelve dollars an hour in order to enjoy the company of cats.

At these establishments, which normally have a capacity of eight, guests either sit at tables, lounge on couches, or sit on cat-shaped cushions strewn about the floor. There are, of course, larger establishments that offer cat-themed sweets, traditional Japanese cuisine, and beverages other than tea. (See photo above of some of the cats at Cafe Calico.)

The number of cats per cafe varies from as few as two to as many as fourteen. They have their own litter boxes and are not caged although they are sometimes segregated in separate rooms if their presence is not desired. Generally, however, they are free to either accept or reject the attentions of their admirers.

Most of the cafes, moreover, do not allow customers to either disturb the cats' slumber or to pick them up. Since tail pulling is strictly verboten, small children are barred from some of the cafes.

"I don't hesitate to scold people who treat cats in a bad way," Osamu Maeda, proprietor of Neko JaLaLa, told The Christian Science Monitor on April 25th. (See "Tokyo's Cat Cafes Offer Serenity in the City.") Abuse nonetheless occurs and even Maeda admits to once having been bitten by a put-upon feline at another neko cafe.

For the sake of both their businesses and the welfare of the cats, the cafes have put in place strict rules of hygiene that include regular trips to the veterinarian for the cats and a requirement that all patrons remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering. Because cats tend to shed, frequent vacuuming is mandatory.

Cats are rather popular in the land of the rising sun in part because the denizens seem to have a genuine affection for them but also because some entrepreneurs are astute enough to recognize a gold mine when they see one. (See Cat Defender post of June 2, 2008 entitled "Ridership Soars as Tama Takes Over as a Stationmaster on Money-Losing Commuter Train Line.") As is the case with man's treatment of all animals, it is difficult to gauge exactly where the affection ends and the naked exploitation begins.

While the motives of the teahouse proprietors are suspect, those of their clientele seem to be transparent enough. For most of them, the cafes offer an opportunity to enjoy the company of cats without the obligations of ownership.

"When it comes to having cats, it's a burden," Tetsunori Oda, a systems engineer and patron of Neko JaLaLa, told The Christian Science Monitor in the article cited supra. "I work and I don't have the time to take care of them in a responsible manner."

He nonetheless fully appreciates the valuable role that cats play in relieving stress and in helping him to unwind after a hectic day at the office. After all, sipping tea and playing with cats is not only easier on the wallet but it does not have the debilitating side effects associated with getting wasted on sake and frolicking with geishas every night.

Still, there is something inherently selfish and irresponsible about Oda's attitude. It is akin to ripping off another man's mistress or wife because one is either too cheap or too selfish to support a woman of one's own.

Individuals who truly love cats want to provide them with permanent homes. As with having a lover, the real joy with cats comes from commitment. Besides, cats are self-sufficient and require very little attention.

Others frequent the cafes because of draconian laws that outlaw the keeping of cats in apartments, college dormitories, and elsewhere. Still others use the cafes as low-tech social networking sites in order to meet new friends, find lovers, and further their careers.

As for the cafes themselves, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that they came into existence almost as an afterthought. For instance, the Curl-Up Cafe started out simply as a gathering spot for ailurophiles to talk about cats before it later mushroomed into a full-blown neko cafe. (See photo above of one of its working cats.)

"Initially, I only had one cat, but the numbers gradually increased as my twin daughters each got a cat, and so my friends and acquaintances came to visit us to see the cats," the cafe's unidentified owner told the Daily Yomiuri on November 22, 2007. (See "Neko Cafes Are the Cats' Meow.") "And as I saw people who did not particularly like cats turn into cat-lovers through spending some time with them, I thought I should open a cafe where people could get together and cherish cats."

Oddly enough, Nekomachi (cat town) Cafe 29 began as a dog cafe where patrons congregated to sip coffee at outdoor tables while their canine companions waited patiently at their sides. It only became a cat cafe after a friend gave owner Misuzu Uemura two kittens.

"Now, almost all cafe customers come here for the cats, Sora and Fu," she told the Daily Yomiuri in the article cited supra. "The cats really do like humans, and often jump onto your (sic) knees. That may be the reason the two of them attract customers."

Judging from press reports, it appears that a majority of the felines working in the cafes were donated. For instance, some of the twelve cats kept at Norimasa Hanada's Neko no Mise (cat store) were dropped off by owners who had grown tired of them. The remainder could have been procured from shelters, breeders, or even be strays.

Quite obviously, not all the cats work out as expected and this brings up the unpleasant issue of what happens to them then? For the most part, the cats are said to restrict their mischief to stealing handkerchiefs and raiding the milk pots but a few of them have been known to inadvertently shred speakers, chairs, and clothing while sharpening their claws.

Problems such as these can be greatly alleviated by erecting scratching posts throughout the establishments in conjunction with a liberal use of double-stick tape and jars filled with pennies.

It also is likely that occasionally patrons are scratched by the cats, particularly if they get fresh with them. Nonetheless, this does not appear to be much of a problem and, besides, most customers seem to understand, as Cervantes did, that "those who play with cats must expect to be scratched." (See photo on the right of an unidentified woman with a teahouse cat.)

There cannot be any denying, however, that the cats which management either no longer has any use for or takes a particular dislike to will sooner or later be given the boot just as Morris and Fred were recently given their walking papers. (See Cat Defender post of May 15, 2008 entitled "Predatory Capitalism Rears Its Ugly Head as Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Sacks 'Overnight' Cats, Morris and Fred.")

To his credit, Maeda of Neko JaLaLa is well aware of the potential for feline exploitation and abuse. "When it comes to the business of cat cafes, you can grow by opening more branches or expanding the scale of existing stores," he told The Christian Science Monitor. "But there is a limit to that. What happens to the cats once this isn't so popular anymore?"

For that reason he is not taking in any additional cats, but instead is restricting his acquisitions to those that he is willing and able to care for long after their working days are at an end. As commendable as that is, it is doubtful that such an attitude is universally shared by his competitors.

Maeda further claims to be concerned about the plight of both strays and the estimated two-hundred-forty-thousand cats that are slaughtered each year at shelters in Japan. "Everything here is based on the idea of getting people to love cats," he told The Christian Science Monitor.

Nevertheless, a visit to his cafe's web site reveals that of the eight cats that he has working for him only one, Jack, is a hybrid. The remainder are all pedigreed animals. Included within the ranks are a Norwegian Forest Cat named Lala, a Munchkin named Chki, an American Curl named, appropriately enough, Curl, an Abyssinian named Anne, a Ragdoll named Taki, and two Maine Coons named Cooo and Rick.

Although it is possible that some of these cats were either strays that turned up on his doorstep or donations from disgruntled owners, it is unlikely that they all arrived via those routes. Since the acquisition of pedigreed cats does little to reduce the ranks of either the homeless or the slaughtered, there appears on the surface to be a disconnect between Maeda's rhetoric and his behavior.

Even though there is not anything either egregiously cruel or inhumane about them, neko cafes operate in an environment that is pregnant with opportunities for abuse and exploitation. If the proprietors of these establishments are conscientious in their care and treatment of the cats there will not be any need for intervention by either feline welfare groups or the local authorities.

Cases of abuse and exploitation must be vigorously investigated, however, and the teahouses cannot be allow to operate as revolving doors where they acquire and dump cats as it suits their financial agenda. Adopting a cat is a lifetime commitment and that moral precept applies to capitalist enterprises as well as to individuals.

Photos: Kichimani (Cafe Calico cats), Curl-Up Cafe (brown and white cat) and Michael Caronna of The Christian Science Monitor (woman with cat).