‘How could you do this to me?’
The look from Chairman Meow as I walked in the door said it all: Hurt, anger and betrayal all wrapped up in a slightly tubby tabby. Here I was, not only coming home late but stinking of other cats.
‘Wait! I can explain . . .!”
Too late. With an extravagant swish of the tail, the Chairman turned and stomped upstairs in disgust. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, it’s not a patch on a pissed off puss.
In fact, there was good reason for my feline infidelity. With all the excitement surrounding the planned opening in Shoreditch of London’s first Cat Café, I was curious – What might the capital expect? I’d travelled down to Totnes in Devon to meet the team behind the UK’s only current Cat Café and see what might be in store.
The Totnes Cat Café is the brainchild of Liz Dyas. She heard about Japanese cat cafés and realised many cat-lovers here also longed for one as a pet but found it impossible – landlord’s restrictions maybe, family circumstances or finances – so she used her savings to bring the concept to the UK. Not that this was the first time Totnes had struck a blow for alternative café culture – Last year, the town made headlines for successfully preventing Costa from opening on its High Street.
Totnes advertises itself not just as a café but a “Feline Therapy Lounge”. The therapeutic properties of pet ownership are well documented in medical journals, human and veterinary, and the café now has connections with organisations such as The Stroke Association. When you step inside, there is a sense of leaving the world and its troubles far behind – once of course you’ve cracked the complex system of doors designed to keep the cats safely within (far easier said than done!). For a start, it feels more your living room than a café – All big comfy sofas, low tables and scatterings of magazines. It’s peaceful too, certainly by London standards, thanks to an unintended ‘no children’ policy. Cats, it seems, are Certificate 18 at least where insurance companies are concerned.
So what of the Café’s cats? There are 6 members of the Totnes team – Jet, Rolo, Lilac, Felix, Mango and Glee – all rescue cats and all specially chosen for their friendly, sociable nature. Unlike the plans for London, none are moggies-in-residence, rather they live at home with Liz and commute in daily with her to the Café. Jet is the baby of the family – not that you’d believe it from the size of him. Walk like a Panther? This pure black, gentle giant could easily teach Tony Christie a thing or two. Mango is the looker – Long haired, ginger and white, he’s every bit the show-off supermodel – whilst Lilac and Glee are the troublemakers, Lilac especially. She’s even been known to steal purses out of customers’ handbags. As Liz jokes, “if the café didn’t work out, at least we knew we’d still make a living as cat burglars!”
Judging by the number of visitors, the people of Totnes have definitely taken the Cat Cafe to heart. Many are regulars, popping in daily to enjoy a cat and a cuppa and soak up the (c)atmosphere. Not everyone however has been so enthusiastic. The leading cat’s charity, Cats Protection, have been openly critical of the cafe claiming it’s not a suitable environment for cats and likely to cause them stress. It’s something which clearly frustrates Liz: ‘they didn’t even realise I was already running one of their shelters’ she says, referring to her Cool for Cats cattery and rehoming centre. ‘No one from Cats Protection head office has ever even been to the cafe. Their people on the ground here are nothing but supportive’.
Academic literature on the subject is certainly divided but at the time of visiting at least, all the cats seemed very relaxed in each other’s company and enjoying the attention. There are clearly sign-posted human ‘no-go zones’ (ie top shelves & cubby holes) designed to offer the cats a retreat. Liz herself is adamant their welfare will always come first but as she says ‘cat people come here. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who’ve tried to pick a cat up or do anything silly’. It’s particularly disappointing for her since the Cafe, a not-for-profit organisation, had planned to raise money for the Charity : ‘they sent a letter from a solicitor saying they wouldn’t accept a penny. We used to have it pinned up on the door’. Proceeds from the cafe now go to other animal charities instead.
So does Liz have any words of advice for Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium? ‘We were pioneers you see. It’s always hard when you’re first’ she says, sympathising with the battle the London team are currently having with red tape. Interestingly, the one big change Liz has made is around entrance fees. She used to charge £2 for 30mins but found customers disliked the entry charge, preferring instead to pay a little more for their drinks. Given the demand already for bookings at Lady Dinah’s, it doesn’t sound like us Londoners will have any such qualms.
For all the focus on her cats, in many ways the real star of the show is Liz herself. With a passion for life that would shame most half her age, she’s a remarkable woman: Having trained as a nurse, she opened one of the country’s first ever children’s nurseries before focussing on animal welfare. In 1990, she set up Prickly Ball Farm and Hedgehog Rescue Centre which went on to become one of Devon’s most popular attractions and even led to her making an appearance on The Ali G Show : ‘I found the whole thing very strange and kept thinking ‘are they really going to show this on the telly?’!”
So after TV celebrity and cat cafes, what’s next? : ‘Oh, a book! I think I shall write a book about it all’
It’s going to be quite a tale…
… Or should that be tail?!
With sincere thanks to Liz, Bill & Melanie at the Totnes Cat Cafe – And not forgetting of course Jet, Rolo, Mango, Felix, Lilac and Glee