Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium interview
Lauren Pears is an entrepreneur that all of us should aspire too. Formerly an experienced Senior Project Manager with a background in video games development and web technology, Lauren took a leap of faith into the unknown to become founder of the UK’s first ever cat café.
With unbridled determination, focus, hard work and a great idea, Lauren threw all of her might into raising financial backing through crowd funding and achieved great success. She received over £100,000 in donations and the cafe, named Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium (after Alice’s cat in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’), finally opened in March 2014 in Shoreditch, East London. Thousands of cat lovers in London shared the good news through social media.
I caught up with Lauren to find out how its all going and to find out more about the ins and outs of working with animals in a café setting. Although the trend of pet cafés does concern, me I am reassured by Lauren’s focus on making sure the wellbeing of the cats in her cafe are her number one priority.
Lauren thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and for allowing us to use your photographs.
What gave you the idea to open a cat café?
I knew about Cat Cafés as a concept since I visited one in 2008 in Japan. I particularly missed having animals in my life since moving to London and I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
I know you looked to crowdfunding. Could you tell me more about that side of things?
After looking around at various funding sources, crowdfunding seemed the most sensible route. I didn’t want to be under pressure to make a lot of money for a rich investor, and considering that the idea is a bit out there, it was also a way to find out if people would be interested or not. Lady Dinah’s is the first fully crowdfunded cat cafe in the world, and we’ve inspired a lot of other people to try since our success in early 2014.
Were you sure from the beginning that you would receive the amount needed to open?
Who were your main supporters?
Family, friends and my fiancé! But from the public we gained some lovely fans very quickly, and one of our VIPs has become so much part of Lady Dinah’s, he now owns part of the business.
Did you have to liaise with any particular professional organisations that work with animals before the cafe could get permission to open? For example, did you have to present research to or take advice from any organisations such as the RSPCA or International Cat Care?
I spoke with everyone! Not for permission so much as for education. I wanted to make sure it would be possible to run a cat café and truly safeguard the animals’ wellbeing. There are varied opinions on whether or not cats can be housed as a colony, for example and I wanted to really understand the factors that influence colony harmony, as well as the medical and contagion management protocols that I should have in place to keep them safe.
Did you come up against any negative feedback and, if so, from whom and what were their concerns?
Of course! It was new and strange. Particularly some of the animal charities were concerned we’d put profits before animals and that the lifestyle would be cruel to them. All valid concerns at the time, and they are still valid concerns.
The ethical soundness of a cat cafe has, in my view, less to do with the concept itself and a lot more to do with how it is executed. I believe it can be a wonderful thing for cats and people, but I also think it can be very easily turned into something harmful if the person at the helm has the wrong motivations. A person should not open a cat cafe to become rich, or to establish a monopoly. It always makes me nervous to see people declaring intentions to open branches in every city of the country – especially people who announce it before they’ve even opened one cat café! Before they even know what it’s like!
To me, franchising cat cafés is a disturbing trend. I like to know all my cats well and to be aware of their individual needs all the time. I fear with a rapid expansion, I would lose sight of that and standards would slip. This concern also spills over into the rapid-turnover cafés that have a swiftly changing population. I feel I wouldn’t get to know any of my cats well enough to be able to adequately assess their state and I know how hard it is to integrate cats successfully, I wouldn’t like to do that with many cats from multiple sources.
What was the positive feedback?
People were very excited about the cats, but I think overall, with Lady Dinah’s, a lot of the buzz was also around the community feel that we were so lucky to have from day 1. Crowdfunding helped with that, but also we made an effort, via social media, to keep people involved in the details. It took a while, but people started to really understand our values and support us as we worked on opening the café.
Where do the cats come from?
They come from a variety of places, usually they are relinquished by owners to us, a few have been dumped on our doorstep and have passed the medical requirements to join the colony, and others are from shelters. They are all moggies, we don’t support breeding for appearance.
How can you be sure they will all get on? Any fights?
We take a lot of time to introduce them. We have never had a serious fight, although swipes and pounces do happen from time to time. Usually it’s playtime that goes too far. We make sure to give them everything they need so they don’t have anything to fight about. They are also typically raised together. We rarely adopt a solitary cat (we have only done so when a cat was left with us), we prefer to adopt them in a family group so that they have peers when they integrate with the main colony. This ensures no cat is the ‘one new guy’ in town and makes them less fearful.
Do you mainly go for the same age group of cats?
Most of our cats are from the same litter, so they are naturally the same age. We generally only introduce younger animals to the colony if we do take them in, so that the older cats don’t feel too challenged by new arrivals.
How did you research the keeping of the cats in this sort of environment?
Tirelessly! I spent a lot of time working on this, and [looked up and had advice from] a lot of sources.
How did you go about choosing the ‘right’ cat personalities for this type of environment?
We do more with psychological imprinting than we do with selection. Sometimes animals just show up at our door and there’s no opportunity for choice: we run our medical tests, and we look for general overall fearlessness. If a cat seems accepting of people and cats, we then spend a lot of time imprinting them with positive experiences with several people at once, slowly increasing the number of people, and scent transfer and short exposure to big cats. We also do the same with the big cats: we’ll give them lots of cuddles and brushes on a blanket that smells like the new cats.
If a cat is by default fearful, we look for a suitable home. There’s no point putting a scared cat in a café, it would be awful for the cat. Distress is contagious, and some stress-onset diseases are as well. It’s just not wise or kind to put a nervous cat in that position.
What happens if you spot cats that do not get on or ones that clearly wish to go outside?
We give them a holiday at the home of one of the staff and see how their behaviour is affected. Historically, some of them have seemed much happier and we’ve re-homed them, and others have been miserable and have had to return to the café, where they’ve settled down again.
How did you get clearance from health and safety that usually forbid animals in close proximity to food?
We complied with the law That’s all one has to do!
Is the cafe visited at all by feline welfare officers or behaviourists as part of on-going checks?
Yep, it’s a requirement of our licence.
What are your thoughts on the countless other animal related café’s opening around the world such as owl café’s in Japan.
I feel more comfortable with the café concept with animals that have a long history of domestication and adaptation to human environments, like dogs and cats. I don’t understand owls or hedgehogs as well as cats, but I feel that they are much more wild and timid and I’m not sure I like the idea. That said, I also expect there are a number of cat cafés I wouldn’t like. It would all depend on how well the individual needs of each animal were catered to.
Did you draw inspiration from other cat cafés initially?
Do the cats remain living in the café for life or can they be adopted at a later stage?
If they ask to leave, they can be adopted. We look for behavioural signs – soiling outside of trays, aggression, withdrawal, malaise, over-grooming. To date, withdrawal has been the first indicator in all instances where we’ve undertaken to re-home a cat. We don’t like to let stress escalate into physical symptoms or behavioural problems, we’ll intervene at the withdrawal stage. Usually we can tell very quickly when a cat isn’t being their usual self.
You are based 5 minutes from Brick Lane. What was the general feedback within the local community when you first opened? Were they supportive and have views changed since then?
They were super supportive. They’ve been amazing.
Who’s been your most famous visitor?
We’ve had a few! Chris Robshaw, Richard Curtis, James McVey from The Vamps, Giovanna Fletcher and a rumour went around that we denied Katy Perry entry, but that’s not true. Or if it is, it wasn’t intentional!
Do you have plans to build outside space for the cats?
At the moment, planning issues, neighbours and an egregious pigeon problem make it unsanitary and challenging to build on the space we had designated for an outdoor space. We still really want to do this, but it’s proving to be a bigger challenge than we’d expected.
What are your thoughts on keeping cats exclusively indoors?
All cats are individuals and have different needs. We’d like to give them the option, but thats our default position on all things: we provide for things they might need and they can opt in and out. To date, none of our cats seem particularly interested in the outdoors, and they get a lot of mental stimulation for being cafe cats and having plenty of opportunities for play and love.
Do you have your own cats?
I wouldn’t want to have a pet cat when I am so busy, I wouldn’t be able to look after them to a standard I’m happy with.
What do you love about cats?
A happy healthy cat knows who they are and what they want. I love their self-composure.
Any new ventures in the pipeline?
We’re focusing on creating better spaces for people and cats within the café at the moment, we want Lady Dinah’s to be the world standard in cat cafes.
Who has been your biggest inspiration in life (can be more than one person) and what is your philosophy for how you live your life presently.
I don’t know! Usually I just do something because I want to do it, not to necessarily emulate a specific individual. I think we choose the people in our circle for the qualities they posses that we wish to have and there is inspiration to be taken from everyone.
To book a table for lunch, high tea or even colouring sessions visit: Lady Dinah’s Cat Cafe. Address: 152-154 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E26DG