Early last Friday afternoon we visited the Brooklyn Cat Café—the first permanent cat café in Brooklyn. The next morning it would open to the public, but on that gray drizzly day, reporters and borough president Eric Adams stopped by to check it out, and hang with some cats. Later that evening, an opening party would welcome supporters with wine, and celebrate the arrival of 12 new feline neighbors all with drastically different personalities, ages, and sizes, who had been collected from city shelters, owners who could no longer care from them, or found on the street.
Inside, Anne Levin, founder of the Brooklyn Cat Café, milled about the space. The building was first constructed in 1900 and is now newly renovated through hundreds of donated hours from cat-loving volunteers. In the past few years, cat cafés have become almost mythically popular. Levin first thought up this one as a non-profit, and a creative source of income to fund the Brooklyn Bridge Animal Welfare Coalition, which advocates for homeless animals; Levin is its president. Rather than apply for grant after grant to support vet bills, for example, at BBAWC, Levin realized a café would be a much easier, and much more fun solution. And after her resoundingly popular cat café pop up in Fort Greene last year, she was confident it would work.
Now—I’m not cat person. Actually, I’ve never had a single pet in my life. So this place—complete with cat wall art, educational brochures, tea mugs, cases filled with gourmet cat food, cat scratch pads, toys, an entire bespoke terrarium made for a brand new litter of miniature baby cats, and a handful of serious cat loving neighbors and volunteers, calmly reveling in a shrine built exclusively for the pet that has spawned millions of viral videos—was to step into a brand new universe, the psyche of the cat enthusiast. On the wall, a projector was flashing large images of cats and their biographical information, targeted at future owners.
Scarlett had been rescued from a deli basement in Ditmas Park and was “an adorable small tuxedo girl with enormous green eyes and soft fur,” the text read, next to her picture. “Like her namesake, Scarlett is her own woman.” Then there was Evie, “a chatty, petite girl with soft black fur and big green eyes,” plus, “Evie wants to sleep next to you every night, and is very talkative when treats are involved!”
I asked Levin how the day was going, if she was excited. She said it had been calm, with a nice steady flow of reporters, but she looked tired. Clearly, getting to this moment had required a lot of work, and a lot of love.
Levin became enamored of cats 30 years ago in Sacramento, California. One day, walking with her dad, they happened upon a stray. “I think my sister was there, too; It was very sweet and we took it home—well, it followed us, and it spent the entire night purring and cuddling in my ear.”
Levin was a goner. They had previously been a dog family, but she describes herself as a “sofa person” and cats are more built for that kind of living room- and book-reading companionship than are dogs. Levin ended up heartbroken over her first cat, however. It belonged to someone else. But her parents came through for her and her sister: each one was given a brand new cat, a boy and a girl.
At Brooklyn Cat Café, you can make a reservation, or walk in for a half hour play and petting slot. But beyond relaxing and playing with cats, Levin has big plans for the café as a source for cat outreach, advocacy and education.
Off the top of her head, she lists the following programs: Cat Yoga (wherein the cat is your inspiration for reaching extra tough stretches, because they’re natural hyper-extensions make it look quite easy, after all), children’s art classes, trap, neuter, and return classes, partnerships with low-cost spay and neuter organization, vet vaccine clinics, talks from local vets about cat behavioral and medical issues, connecting survivors of PTSD to cats as a source of therapy, and pet-conflict mediation. “Say my pet is bothering you; we have mediation relating specifically to pets or cats,” says Levin. And, starting next fall, they’ll do programs with local schools, teaching kids the importance of treating animals well. All told, Brooklyn Cat Café is about “going out and making sure animals can be helpful, and that we can see the importance of their role in daily life.”
At that point, Levin’s eyes open wide; she is suddenly fully awake and animated. “Have you seen the baby cats?”
We walk to the front of the place where the terrarium holds a mama cat and at least six baby cats. I guess I’ve seen kittens before, but I have never seen any cats that were as miniature as these. They didn’t look real.
“A lot of people haven’t. It’s educational,” says Levin. These babies will grow up at the cat café, and stay until they’re vaccinated and healthy. But watching that process—and seeing how big that litter is—is also an education. “Everyone loves baby cats, but do you know how many are euthanized every year?” Levin asks. This is a pretty awful thing to consider, whether you are a cat-enthusiast or not. Levin didn’t have the statistic right in front of her, but was pretty certain that, last year alone in New York City, the number was more than 8,000.
“Everyone does the best they can, but they’re is overpopulation, and they need to be spayed and neutered,” says Levin.
After that sobering lesson, Levin brings us back to a brighter side because there is plenty to learn about cats, including broadening our understanding of typical cat behavior. People stereotype what that is; but every cat here has a wildly different personality, says Levin, including the store mascot, Newt (her own cat) who is fearless and calm. Indeed, I didn’t know any of this stuff–behavioral, medical, or about cat yoga, for goodness sake—until 20 minutes earlier. I had to say, it did change my mind about the pet with which millions of people are obsessed.
“So yeah, we don’t want to lecture, and we don’t want to be Debbie Downer,” says Levin. “We think this is a great opportunity to learn something, and enjoy it.”
All photos by Jane Bruce.