Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.
Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself.
There’s always been something vaguely countercultural and avant-garde about cats. Dogs, man’s best friend, sit firmly in the American mainstream. We value them for their single-minded devotion to their human masters. Dogs are undyingly loyal and happily take on dangerous pursuits such as police investigations and search-and-rescue operations. Cats, on the other hand, are notoriously aloof, mercurial in their temperaments, and seldom willing to submit to our commands. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that cats tend to be more polarizing than dogs. A 2009 survey finds that 74 percent of American adults report that they like dogs a lot, and only 2 percent dislike them strongly. Only 41 percent love cats, while 15 percent intensely dislike them.
The dog/cat divide bears more than a passing resemblance to the red state/blue state divide. In 2014, Roberto A. Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham noted at the Washington Post that “The most dog-friendly state is Arkansas, where dogs outnumber cats 1.35-to-1. At the other end of the spectrum stands Massachusetts with 1.87 cats for every dog.”
Indeed, the concentration of cat cafés in the large cities of Blue America and their origins in population-dense East Asia speak to cats’ identities as the quintessential urban pets. Dogs prefer to frolic in the wide-open spaces of the suburbs, but cats are comfortable passing time in the cozier confines of a high-rise apartment. They are the perfect pet for the modern urbanite. Cats can be left alone for a couple of nights if their human partner needs to get away for a business trip; they don’t need to be hustled down the stairs to the busy street for regular walks, and they don’t emit loud barks that disturb the people in adjacent apartments. Urban dog ownership isn’t impossible, of course; some of my best friends pull it off with aplomb. But there can ultimately be little doubt that amid the deepening urban/rural divide in America, cats reign in urban households.
I suggest that cats’ urban identity is fitting, because cats, like humans, manage to embody the two interrelated faces of urban life. Consider, first, the human urbanite as master of the universe, unencumbered by old-fashioned notions of loyalty to small-town tradition, confident that children and other trappings of bourgeois family life can wait, ready to conquer the city on his or her own terms. Now consider the urbanite’s possible need for a therapist, talking over nagging misgivings about the rootlessness that accompanies mobility and the anomic normlessness that Durkheim saw accompany urbanization.
Sometimes the notion of a dark side to urban life is propagated in ham-fisted ways, as when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” Then there is Donald Trump, a New Yorker born and bred who, on the campaign trail, compared urban neighborhoods to “war zones.” Jefferson and Trump err in their diagnoses of the chief downsides of urban life. The city does not lack in virtue—how can one not be impressed by the courage and resolve of New Yorkers after 9/11 or Londoners during the Blitz? And Trump is wrong in casting cities as crime-ridden hellscapes. Rather, the real downside of urban life lies in how city-dwellers address pressures associated with careers or social climbing, whether the drive to be a master of the universe crowds out other experiences for reflection, relaxation, and the enjoyment of simplicity and innocence.
The cat café, I suggest with tongue only slightly in cheek, is a spiritual oasis in the hypercompetitive urban landscape. In an academic study of Japanese cat cafés, Lorraine Plourde writes that “People go to cat cafés to be healed…. Salarymen come here after work as a way to cope with their grueling jobs…. Indeed, many cat cafés position themselves as occupying a distinct temporal space by drawing on discourses of leisure (yuttari), relaxation (kutsurogi), slowness (yuruyuru), and the idea of ‘cat time’ (neko no jikan)…. [These qualities] mark the temporality of the café as one positioned outside the frenzied and presumably stressful experience of everyday life in Tokyo.” My own experiences at American cat cafés reinforce Plourde’s findings.
What’s more, the two faces of the urbanite—the independent striver who still requires occasional healing—are echoed in cats themselves. Abigail Tucker notes this paradox in her recent book The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, writing “House cats would not exist without humans, but we didn’t really create them, nor do we control them now.” Quite true. On the one hand, cats are famously solitary predators who manage to survive in a variety of contexts. But at the end of the day, they are also highly vulnerable creatures. They (and other domestic pets) enjoy greater legal protections than many other sentient organisms, but they remain animals in a culture committed to human exceptionalism. Unwanted cats are routinely euthanized, and strays are vulnerable to coyotes, dogs, vehicles, and anti-cat humans. In this sense, the cat café is a refuge for the cats as much as it is for the patrons. It is a place in which a cat can be fed, sheltered, and cared for until it finds a permanent home.
Perhaps, then, the legions of latter-day Jane Jacobses would do well to consider giving cat cafés a place in urban planning discourse. Cat cafés can sooth the anomic urban soul and help these loving, adorable, and endlessly fascinating creatures find homes at the same time. Who could ask for anything more?
Matthew Braswell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.