| Kirsten Han |
SINGAPORE (dpa) – It is 11am and the cats of Neko no Niwa are up and about. Before long, the cafe is filling up with customers wanting to play with the friendly felines.
The first cat cafe in Singapore marked its first anniversary last month. It sets a trend in the city-state, with four other cat cafes appearing in 2014.
Situated in the central business district, owners Samuel Isaac Chua and Tan Sue Lynn believe their cafe is an ideal refuge amid the bustle of the city.
“Chances are people living (in this area) will not have a lot of time in Singapore. A lot of them will be jet-setting, flying around for business, and if they’d like to have a pet but don’t have time for a pet, I think we’re in a great position to offer a service,” Chua told dpa.
The pampered cats of Neko no Niwa – meaning “cat garden” in Japanese, a nod to where cat cafes originated – were all strays. They are the lucky ones in a city where an estimated 50,000 strays roam the streets.
Organisations like the Cat Welfare Society carry out sterilisation campaigns to better manage the population, but animal rescue groups are still inundated with cats looking for a good home.
Public housing policies make it illegal to own a cat in government flats, in which about 80 per cent of Singapore’s resident population live.
Camellia Abd Gani, coordinator of a cat therapy programme at a nursing home, has seen elderly patients brighten up when they interact with animals.
“Visiting a cat cafe is a good experience, especially for cat lovers who don’t have cats at home. It helps to improve your mood, like a stress reliever,” she said.
Like much of the city outside, Neko no Niwa is kept spotlessly clean, and does not come cheap.
It allows no more than 20 visitors at a time, and charges a fee of 12 Singapore dollars (nine US dollars) for the first hour, with additional charges each subsequent half-hour.
Children below the age of seven are not allowed, and every visitor is given a handbook of rules.
The cafe’s 13 cats are free to roam, play or take a break from human interaction to use scratching posts and toys. The more social felines are often happy to curl up on a visitor’s lap.
Han Dang eagerly snaps photos on her first visit to the cafe. “It’s calming, it’s comfortable.
“It’s a nice environment for cats and for everyone to be here together,” she said.
Not all cat cafes have an obvious commitment to the welfare of their pets. The owner of Cuddles Cat Cafe put his business up for sale in mid-December amid a furore over the death of seven cats.
Singapore’s cat trend has extended beyond cafes. Not too far from Neko no Niwa, the Lion City Kitty museum is part museum, part art gallery, part shelter.
Occupying three levels, the space features cat-related art pieces contributed by artists around the world, many of which are on sale.
Visitors are able to learn about the history of cats around the world through the posters and displays.
They can also play and interact with founder Jessica Seet’s nine cats, now comfortably living on the top floor.
“I wanted to have more people get the chance to get to know a cat. I was surprised by how many people are terrified of cats … they just have this phobia,” Seet said.
The second level of the museum is home to about 12 cats, selected by the Cat Welfare Society, either seeking adoption or waiting to be picked up by their new families.
“I would love to help put kitties in an environment where they are at home, so people can see them in the best light,” said Seet, adding that conventional adoption drives are often stressful for cats.
Activists hope for a broader change in attitudes toward cats by the state, and there are signs it may be happening. A pilot project allowing for cat ownership has been introduced in 123 public housing blocks.
Like the owners of Neko no Niwa, Seet believes in the benefits of interaction with cats, and suggests the animals could be sent out into the field to help with therapy sessions.
“A couple of groups have already approached me, asking if we would take some of the gentler kitties to the old folks’ homes … and also with autistic children,” she said.
“We’re very supportive of that if we can help in any way.”