Korea is Still King of the Cat Cafe

Typical judgy cat at a cafe in Bundang, South Korea

Typical judgy cat at a cafe in Bundang, South Korea

If you know me even a little bit, or follow me on Instagram (or just look at the photo that accompanies this blog's homepage) you know I'm sort of a crazy cat lady. I really love all animals, but I guess since I own a cat, and occasionally dress him up in fancy bow ties, I have earned the title. So when I first moved to Korea some four years ago and a few friends asked me if I wanted to check out a cafe where you could sip a latte in a room full of cats, I think I gave a resounding 'HELL YES.'

For a country that is seemingly infatuated with all things feline (cell phone covers, apparel, makeup cases, etc.), very few people actually keep cats as pets. So the local cat cafés are almost like fancy petting zoos, stocked with exotic breeds to wow customers: Bengals, Scottish Folds, Munchkins, Persians--and usually one of those ugly hairless ones whose sole job is to slink around and frighten small children. 

The immaculate shops are also replete with all kinds of lavish toys and jungle gyms for the kitties. And of course there are various treats for sale so you can buy the affection of the 15 or so cats wandering around. (A friend once told me she didn't want to pay for treats, so she brought in a laser pointer and ended up getting kicked out of the cafe. Undeterred, she returned another time with pockets full of catnip. #Hero.)

Taking the safe route with the overpriced treats

Taking the safe route with the overpriced treats

It wasn't long after that first visit that I realized Korea and Japan are masters of the themed café: cat cafes, dog cafes, sheep cafes, princess diary dress-up cafes, cuddle cafes, robot cafes, Charlie Brown cafes, and even this, um, exorcist café. Still, the cat cafes were my favorite. They had such a mellow vibe that you could practically feel your blood pressure go down just walking through the doors and looking around: little kids kneeling on fluffy carpet, playing with the kitties; couples giggling demurely and posing together for selcas;  cats licking people's coffee cups undetected; the smell of espresso wafting through the air—what more could you ask for, right? It was like my happy place. 

My friend Kolt realizes that cats are bros too! ;)

My friend Kolt realizes that cats are bros too! ;)

"Try to move me. I dare you."

"Try to move me. I dare you."

So when cat cafes began opening up in Oakland in New York City, I’ll admit I was skeptical. With our red tape and strict health codes, I nervously wondered what North America’s adaptation of these places would look like. 

The Cat Cafe, San Diego

Well, I got the chance to find out this weekend when I visited San Diego's very own cat cafe downtown, aptly named "The Cat Cafe," which opened its doors in early January.  The resident cats are provided by the San Diego Humane Society, and are available for adoption. 

On a sunny, Sunday morning, my friend and I entered the small, no frills café to investigate. A barista told us we could order a drink and then take it into the next room where the cats were. The café and the “cat room” were entirely separated (by three walls, actually), as I sadly expected would be the case. 

At first glance, it appeared that the “cat room” lacked, well, actual cats. A collection of abandoned toys littered a big carpet, but no cats were frolicking about. Soon we spotted about five asleep or hiding in various areas of the room. None of them were wearing sweaters, or bibs, or bows (sigh). An employee told us a few of the cats were pretty timid, as they had just arrived from the shelter.  I watched as a group of young men tried to coax a grouchy looking calico out from under a piece of furniture to no avail.

I did not see a hairless cat glowering at me from a corner. There were no cats standing on the counter behind the coffee bar, licking the caramel syrup pump. And I was definitely not being swarmed by a pack of cats all vying for my affection. Feeling a deep moral obligation to set the record straight, I whispered to my friend,  “This is not how they are in Korea!”

I eventually settled down on the dingy rug, determined to pet a cat, and gave a chin scratch to a mellow ginger named Garrett who had wandered over. (Poor Garrett had apparently just been neutered.) Occasionally an employee would tell the crowd in a kind voice that we should keep our voices down so as not to frighten the cats.  My friend and I left after about 25 minutes, when another employee announced they were going to give them a 15 minute “rest period” away from people. But first I took a selca:

Awesome photo quality courtesy of my iPhone 4S. Also, cat is not impressed.

Awesome photo quality courtesy of my iPhone 4S. Also, cat is not impressed.

It was then I was struck by the clear distinction between American and Korean cat cafes: one is a novelty coffee shop, built to enthrall humans unfamiliar with the housecat; the other is a cat shelter that serves coffee and focuses on adoption--an entirely different breed, if you will.

Was the experience as a whole disappointing? In a nutshell, yes—but that’s probably because I had spent three years in a cat café mecca.  Everyone else in the café seemed to be having a fantastic time. Even the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a glowing review. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. 

But despite the lack of catmosphere, I have to say that I fully endorse anything that supports the well-being of felines. Who am I to discourage a place that pairs orphaned kitties with their forever homes? And if the ‘cat café’ name garners more attention than a traditional shelter and helps kitties live happy lives, then I say keep on keeping on, San Diego Cat Café (but maybe replace that not-so-white rug and get an air freshener or two. Ahem.)

And if you want the authentic experience--like being mauled by felines while spoon-feeding them tuna treats from a bowl--then you best book a flight to Asia.

Cat lady in her natural habitat

Cat lady in her natural habitat

Do  you know what the cat cafes are like in other parts of the country? Someone in NYC needs to find out and report back! Though you'd better get on that. I heard there's a three-month waiting list...