The Brooklyn Cat Cafe Is Like Something Out of a Hollywood Rom-Com
NYC’s only nonprofit cat cafe is almost too good to be real. Catch their Feline Film Festival this Saturday, June 10.
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From the outside, the Brooklyn Cat Cafe looks more like the shooting location for a big-budget Hollywood rom-com than a working cat rescue. It occupies the ground floor of a $4.5 million red brick townhouse on a tree-lined street in one of the borough’s most picturesque neighborhoods and is utterly charming with its large front windows and warm-hued interior full of plush armchairs and gentle cats, ready for pets (and adopting).
In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, the Brooklyn Cat Cafe facilitated 1,200 cat adoptions, making them the most successful NGO cat adoption organization in the state. They adopted another 900 cats the following year and are on track to help even more cats in 2023. They run an active trap-neuter-return (TNR) program and have a network of hundreds of fosters helping to socialize spicy kitties and get them ready for new homes. In addition, their rescue clinic, which opened in 2020 and is housed in the townhouse’s basement, performs thousands of exams and spay/neuter surgeries every year and is an essential resource for local rescuers and low-income pet parents.
“We do probably 30 to 40 spay/neuters every week,” says Desiree Pan, director of operations for the cafe. “We also do enucleation and other limited surgeries, administer vaccines, and perform regular veterinary examinations. And we are planning on doing dentals for the cats as well; those are quite expensive, so it is much better if we can do them in-house.”
The Day-to-Day of Brooklyn Cat Cafe
Securing steady funding is a challenge for any non-profit animal welfare group, which is why the Brooklyn Cat Cafe is so fortunate to have Pan in their corner. Before coming on staff, she worked as a management consultant in banking and finance and volunteered at the cafe when things were slow. “Then the pandemic hit, and we had to close down the cafe, but we still had all the animals living here, needing to be taken care of, and I lived within walking distance, so I started coming in five or six days a week to look after them,” she says. She started coordinating the volunteers, and as the cafe opened back up, she accepted a full time position on staff.
Pan describes the cafe as “the public-facing arm of our organization and kind of the last stop on the train” for their resident felines. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that goes on before the cats get to be adoptable in here,” she says. “The rescue work, making sure that they’re healthy, making sure that they are seen by the vet, behavioral assessments, things like that. It’s probably a one to two month process from the time the cats are rescued until they’re adoptable. It could be longer, like if they’re kittens or if they have medical issues. And [the cafe] is kind of the end result of all that hard work.”
And the Brooklyn Cat Cafe doesn’t just help cats. It is also home to an assortment of rabbits, rats, and guinea pigs, all available for adoption or just a quick cuddle. “We’ve always had small animals,” Pan says. “Anne [Levin, executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Animal Welfare Coalition and founder of the Brooklyn Cat Cafe] just really loves animals, so whenever the city shelter or anyone comes to us and says, ‘I’ve got these animals, and they need a home; can you make them available for adoption?’ she says yes.”
Where Cats Are Besties With Rats
Rats can get a bad rap, especially in New York, but the rats at the Brooklyn Cat Cafe are gentle, intelligent, and very cuddly. They even help care for the cafe’s cat population. “We’ve found that we can put tiny, motherless kittens with the rats, and the rats will groom them and keep them warm and care for them,” Pan says. “When we had a kitten with leukemia — who couldn’t be around other cats because feline leukemia is contagious — we put her with one of our white rats [and she thrived].”
All the animals at the cafe are highly social and are usually only adopted out in pairs. “People often come in wanting to adopt a single cat [or other pet], but cats that prefer to be single, by nature, are not the type of cats that get along in this environment,” says Pan. So, the cafe’s staff always make sure to introduce the prospective adopters to their preferred cat’s best friend and make it clear that they are a package deal.
The cafe is popular with tourists and locals alike, whether they are looking to adopt or not. “We get about 4,000 or 5,000 visitors every month, including a lot of locals who come back again and again just to hang out in the cafe,” she adds.
Admission is just $12 per person, and the cafe supplements their income by selling merch, cat toys, and treats visitors can feed to the resident felines. “We also get a lot of grants,” says Pan. “We have adoption donations — roughly $150 per cat — and we host kitten parties and things like that. We’re also experimenting with new revenue streams. For instance, we’ve started to sell drinks and packaged snacks. We can’t prepare food here, because of the cats, but people can buy drinks. And we are looking into getting some corporate sponsors. We are also expanding into the apartment upstairs and creating a space for people to rent for private events. Even now, people can rent the whole cafe out, if they want, for around $600 per hour.”
Catch Some Cat Flicks
Pan even planned a feline film festival, happening this Saturday, June 10 at 5 p.m. Eastern Time. “Our first film festival was in 2019, and we haven’t been able to do one since, but we are excited to bring it back this year.” she says. “To get the films, we reach out to film schools and ask the students for 15-minute shorts about cats, then we get film school professors to judge and we have an awards night where we give the winners some kind of a prize, like a day on the set of Saturday Night Live. We still have the films we were planning to show in 2020, in addition to new films, so there is a lot to see and choose from this year.” You can get in-person or virtual tickets for the event here.
The organization faces its fair share of challenges, too, but it’s nothing Pan can’t handle. “It’s growing pains, mostly,” she says. “Getting repeatable processes and creating something that is more controlled and consistent.” And, of course, there are always more and more cats (and small animals) in need of the cafe’s help, especially with the onset of kitten season. In preparation, the cafe has been expanding its staff, but they still rely primarily on volunteers to run their day-to-day operations. “We have about 200 volunteers and there is a good group in there that comes in regularly and is extremely reliable, but we also have a lot of people who only come in once or twice, for whatever reason, and that can be challenging, especially when we are trying to staff up for the weekend or special events.”
Still, Pan would rather be doing this than working in finance. “I love cats and I really believe in what we’re doing here,” she says. “It’s really meaningful work. It doesn’t pay as well [as finance], but it’s much more rewarding. I know why I’m here and why what I’m doing matters. I just love it.”
The Feline Film Festival is at Brooklyn Cat Cafe at 76 Montague St. on Saturday, June 10 at 5 p.m. You can buy tickets here for in-person or virtual attendance
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