KUALA LUMPUR: Chaos. At the small cat cafe Meraki Jelatek this past Saturday morning, about half a dozen cats and kittens pounced, chased and leapt for a furry worm hanging at the end of a string amidst chairs and tables, while an orange kitten groomed himself in a Coke basket by the cashier and a fat black cat stood guard at the door.
A Scottish Fold-tabby mix named Moon is not fond of the hubbub, however, quickly finding a lap he liked and sticking to it.
Owner of the said lap, 33-year old Lili Syazwaniza Mohd Yatim, better-known as Wani, was only too glad to host the fat moggie, who probably weighed 6kg. Her cat, a tuxedo, sits idly in his carrier by her husband, content to be above the fray.
“We were actually heading to the restaurant to eat after going to the vet but then we saw the sign Coffee, Cake and Cats out front,” she told Bernama. Opposite her were the remnants of an English breakfast meal.
Thrilled to discover a cat cafe had opened so close to their vet, she was tempted when she found out all the cats were available for adoption, but regretfully decided against it since she and her husband already have five cats.
Rather than a gimmick to bring in Instagram-crazy influencers or even just a purr-fect place to relax and de-stress, the cafe and its ilk have been a lifeline to many cats abandoned during the Movement Control Order (MCO). These places have sheltered and opened them up for adoption when possible, and served to teach responsible pet ownership.
While this time there are no takers, owner Karen Tony Sulil Majangkim said many have adopted cats from Meraki Jelatek since it opened its doors slightly more than a year ago, at the height of the MCO. To date, 15 cats have been adopted.
FOCUSSING ON ADOPTION
The pandemic left almost no one unscathed, not even pets. When COVID-19 first spread, there were reports that hundreds of pet owners abandoned cats and dogs for fear of catching the disease. Then during the MCO, when many had lost their jobs and could no longer afford food or healthcare for their pets, they resorted to abandoning them outside, some still with their collars on.
It was something Meraki Jelatek owner Karen saw first-hand, which also became the driving force for the cafe.
Two years ago, she first rented an office space in the building to work from home away from her home, saying it was hard to focus at home. She soon discovered cats abandoned nearby, usually by the vet’s office – days-old kittens in a box or injured or disabled adult cats as well as beautiful pedigreed cats. She took some in, found homes for others when possible.
Before long, she found herself renovating and equipping her office as a shelter, and a cafe that the cats would visit and interact with patrons.
“My intention is to shelter them, get them back on their feet, especially the big ones (adult cats), right? And then I open for adoption,” she said, adding there are now 32 cats staying at the shelter.
She told Bernama many of the adoptions occur when customers come to the cafe and bond with the cats. She added the latest adoption was of a rescued Russian Blue cat called Putin.
“One customer, Barbara, always brings her cat to the vet and while waiting for her appointment, she would come here and have her coffee and cheesecake. Then Putin would sit on her lap, and it’s very calming for her. So she asked, ‘Can I adopt him?'” she said.
Karen said when this happened she would interview the prospective owner to make sure he or she knew how to take care of cats properly.
But adoption does not always mean a happy ending. Some cats do not adapt well to a new home and have to be returned.
At Seri Talam Cat Cafe, located in nearby Wangsa Maju about 5km away, there is a cat which has been returned twice after getting adopted, according to cat caretaker Judith Xavier.
“She’s very naughty. She likes to push things off the table,” she said. She added while most adoptions go well, some cats get depressed because they miss the other cats at the shelter.
Prospective adopters were also interviewed to see if they know how to take care of cats and to keep them indoors as much as possible.
“People can adopt the cats but they must take good care of them. I don’t want them to end up being strays,” said Zaiton Abd Mayas, owner of the Seri Talam Cat Cafe.
Unlike Meraki Jelatek, Seri Talam Cat Cafe no longer serves their kuih talam with a side of cats, relegating the pets to the Cat Gallery instead. It takes up the whole floor above the cafe, with a balcony, a main room, a quarantine room and at least three other rooms.
Patrons have to pay a cover charge of RM25 to visit and play with the cats for an hour. Kitty go-gurt and toys are included in the cover charge. Proceeds from the cafe and cover charge go to supporting the cats’ medical costs and upkeep.
With 120 cats in residence, the smell is not for the faint-hearted.
Judith told Bernama the Cat Gallery gets most of its visitors during the weekend, usually tourists and families.
One of them is Sarimah Ibrahim, who was visiting the Cat Gallery with her family.
She said she loved going there to play with the cats, because “my cat at home does not like to share (me with other cats).”
Cat cafes are popular in Asia, with the first cat cafe opening in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998. It has spread worldwide since then. It is especially popular in Japan, where many apartments do not allow pets.
The Japanese model has cats and people sharing a space, while enjoying food and drinks. The Western model separates the food and the cats. They usually charge patrons a cover charge to play with the cats for an hour.
There are no hard numbers for cat cafes in Malaysia. But a cursory internet search found at least 10 in the Klang Valley.
Despite its popularity, support for cat cafes from cat charities has been mixed to unfavourable. Charities, such as the Royal Society to Protect Animals (RSPCA) in many countries, are concerned about cat welfare. They criticised confining so many cats in one space and introducing them to unfamiliar humans, which may stress them out depending on their personality. All agreed tight regulation is needed.
Karen said while the concerns were valid, it really depended on the setup of the shelter and cafe.
“I don’t know about the other places but my cats mind their own business. They’re not confined here. They have the freedom to come in and out of the cafe when they want,” she said.
“And it’s better they be free to roam around in a big space indoors than going outside where they can get hit by a car,” she added.
In the meantime, she said most of the feedback she has received dealt with hygiene, whether having cats would contaminate the cafe.
As for Judith, she said the main issue was not cat cafes per se but that owners refused to spay and neuter their pets, leading many to dump kittens or puppies and to the overcrowding of shelters.
Both cafes have received comments about hygiene, with many asking about cleanliness of the premises if they let the cats walk around.
While Seri Talam caved and decided to separate the cats from the cafe part, Meraki is holding on to the Japanese model, serving food with cats in the premises.
Bernama visited the cafe and found the place spotless, airy and spacious. There were at least two heavy-duty air purifiers at work, sucking up dander and other contaminants. All tables are cleaned and sanitised regularly. There is also an outdoor part of the cafe (for non-cat lovers), which opens out to the walkway, and an indoor part with central air-conditioning.
Patrons Bernama talked to were not fussed about having cats around or near food, saying it felt normal to them. All are cat owners.
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