I’m sitting in the Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Café in Petone, near Wellington. In front of me is a lovely tea set with a beautiful modern glass pot, kept warm by a candle. But who really cares about the tea when there are cats around you? Yes, that’s right. Cat cafés are opening up around the globe. You get to hang out with cats, getting your cuddle fix, play with them or just enjoy a cup of tea, read a book and watch the cats around you.
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a crazy cat lady. Show me pictures of babies and yes, I will tell you how cute they are. Because that’s the polite thing to do, right? But show me photos of kittens (or any cat really) and you will get squeals of delight. I can’t help it, I’m just a cat person and have always been. So, of course, I had to check out this new trend of cat cafés.
Entering cat lovers’ heaven
First, I walked past all types of cat equipment and diverse items adorned with cats: t-shirts, scarves, socks, stationery; whatever crazy cat people can think of. At the counter, Ken the very friendly co-owner greeted me and explained the whole procedure.
The cat area, the highlight of the café, comes with an entry fee ($12 for an hour, $7 for 30 minutes, with concessions for children, students and seniors) which I was happy to pay as the money goes towards helping the abandoned cats find a new home.
The food in the cabinet and a look at the menu were quite tempting with a range of sweet and savoury snacks including sushi, sandwiches, pies, muffins and cupcakes. Several of them were vegetarian, vegan or gluten free. But I wasn’t hungry and instead had a lovely green jasmine tea.
There were already some people in the cat area, but more importantly, there were cats everywhere. The longer I looked, the more of them I saw. Some were sleeping on beanbags, under tables, in boxes and hammocks along the wall (out of reach of people), play fighting with their cat friends or being entertained by humans. I worked hard to suppress my squeals of delight at the sight of all these lovely cats, but I couldn’t help talking to them and telling them how cute they are.
Cats rule at Neko Ngeru
When I first heard about cat cafés, I was rather doubtful about this concept. I worried café owners might use those poor animals to bring more people in to earn more money. Lots of cats don’t like to have strangers around them so I was afraid they might be forced to interact with café patrons. But at Neko Ngeru, I could see that there was no need to worry.
About two years ago, Ken and Richelle opened this café to give homeless cats a good place to stay and to find them a nice forever home. I was happy to find that at Neko Ngeru (both words meaning “cat” in Japanese and Te Reo Maori) it’s all about the cats and their needs.
The house rules clearly state that the cat room belongs to the cats and humans must follow their rules. These include quiet voices, being patient and gentle with the cats and to leave sleeping cats alone. There is always one staff member in the room who keeps an eye on both the cats and the patrons. Most of the time it is Richelle and you can see her love for the cats.
She patiently explains the cats’ individual stories and traits to interested customers, stops fighting cats if they get too rough and makes sure the house rules are being followed. Her care for the cats sometimes leads her to being a bit too direct with the customers, which reminds me of a mother with her children.
Adopting a cat at Neko Ngeru
Towards lunchtime, the cats are becoming restless. They know it can’t be long now till lunch will be served. Whenever Richelle goes near the door where they keep the food, the cats come running up expectantly. When it’s finally lunchtime, she puts food bowls on the floor. I’ve never seen so many cats eat so peacefully next to each other. With their bellies now full I can feel the change in the atmosphere. The cats become quiet and relaxed as they lie around lazily and begin napping.
At Neko Ngeru, cats come in four categories. The professors are the ones who will stay at the café and teach the newcomers proper cat behaviour. The students are learning how to behave around other cats and humans and are available for adoption. The apprentices have just arrived at Neko Ngeru and the team is still getting to know them a bit better before they will become available for adoption. The 96 current graduates are the lucky ones who have already found their new homes.
Ken and Richelle work closely with five animal rescue organisations in the Wellington region. They generally take the more outgoing cats in – who can benefit from the café concept – while the more timid ones stay with the rescue groups.
While drinking my tea, and patting the little cutie lying on the bean bag next to me, I look through the book that explains the cats’ stories and characters. There are also posters on the wall of the cats available for adoption. The idea is that if someone wants to give one or more cats a new home, they can come several times, get to know the cats, learn about their habits and stories and choose the right one(s) for them. Of course, you can’t just buy a cat spontaneously like a pair of shoes. To take one of the lovely cats home, you have to undergo an adoption process similar to the one used by the rescue organisations.
The story behind the Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Café
I always like to hear stories about how people try new things in life, move to new countries, start new careers, etc. The story of Ken and Richelle is definitely one of those.
Having grown up in different parts of the world, they met as school teachers in Ken’s home town Osaka. While Richelle was more of a dog person, it was not just Ken who won her heart but also the cats. Ken brought two rescued cats into the marriage and together they adopted a third. With their three cats they have lived in Kuwait, the USA, Mexico and China.
When he had to stop teaching physical education due to physical limitations, Ken had the idea of opening a cat café. They knew New Zealand from their honeymoon and didn’t want to live in either of their home countries, so New Zealand became their chosen country.
From his work with rescue groups in Shanghai, Ken knew that “the main difficulty in getting animals adopted was giving people chances to get to know them”. They had seen the concept of cat cafés in Japan and this seemed to be the “perfect way for people to meet a cat in a homey setting to see if it is the one to bring home”.
From the idea to the café
From the idea to the opening of the café in December 2017, it took about two years. It required lots of work and a successful crowdfunding initiative. Finding the right place for the café and a landlord who would accept them took the longest. Going from teachers to business owners in a new country meant they had a lot to learn.
They had to use different government services to find out the requirements to open a business in New Zealand and had to learn all aspects of the business itself. Once the place was found, lots of physical labour was needed to create the space that we can now all enjoy. It has been exhausting at times, but Richelle tells me that friends and family have been very supportive and that running this business together has even strengthened their marriage.
Future plans for the café
When I ask Richelle about their plans for the future, her face lights up. They want to expand the café menu and get a liquor licence. I am excited to hear that the new menu will probably include more vegan options and delicious smoothies. The overall goal is just to really make this café work; to make it more profitable so that they can pay themselves, hire more staff and might even find another co-investor. This would enable them to move from Petone to Wellington to increase the number of customers.
The events section on their Facebook page is evidence that they are definitely not short of ideas. At Neko Ngeru, cat people can meet for activities like cat yoga, cat quiz, cat bingo, catnip mouse making and even singles nights.
When my hour is up, I say goodbye to the cats and give them a last cuddle. I leave the café with a big smile on my face and the wish to return some day, perhaps in their new location in Wellington. On my further travels I’ll keep my eyes open for other cat cafés around the world.
Tip: After you got your cuddle fix at Neko Ngeru, have a stroll around Petone, browse through those lovely shops like The Dutch Shop (Dutch and other European products), On Trays (South African and international products) or The Chocolate Story. Add a visit to the beach and finish with dinner at one of the many fabulous restaurants like the Seashore Cabaret or Queen of Jackson.
All photos in this post were kindly provided by the Neko Ngeru Cat Café.