When you enter the Gahwa w Gatwa Cat Cafe in the early afternoon, you probably won’t find any cat to play with. The place is very tranquil, and even your steps can’t be heard, since you have to take off your shoes before stepping on the carpeted floors. So where are the cats? You walk a little until you find a cat tree in the middle with two cats in deep slumber inside. A few steps away, another three cats are curled up to shield their eyes from the light from the shop front windows, right on top of a MEOW-shaped shelving unit. And if you don’t open your eyes wide, you won’t be able to notice the fur ball sleeping in a recess. They need to sleep before the long hours ahead of them to entertain the cafe’s customers!
A Persian ginger cat Whistle, on the contrary, follows you as you complete your tour to get his cuddles. “He is never tired of cuddling – he’s such a clingy boy,” said the cafe’s manager Manal Mohammed, as she surrenders to his Puss in Boots look, picking him up from the floor. Meanwhile, Lenny, a young gray ragdoll cat, loves to hook up with the cafe’s owner Fahd Al- Refaei, joyfully jumping into his lap.
The history of cat cafes goes back between 1996 and 1998 in Thailand, and then on to many other countries. Since the opening of the cat cafe in Kuwait, it has faced a few challenges. Not to mention that you cannot get a license for a place that mixes live animals and food. So, how did Fahd make it happen?
“I rented two shops next to each other with two different licenses – one for a pet shop and the other for a coffeehouse. I don’t sell animals – as a matter of fact, I’m against selling animals. All the 19 cats here were removed from a local shelter that was closing down, and all of them are up for adoption,” Refaei told Kuwait Times. “One of the main challenges we face is to keep the cats clean and healthy. A vet checks the cats every week to detect any sign of disease. The biggest challenge, from my experience, is customers falling foul of the guidelines for handling cats,” he added.
Over 300 people of all ages have visited the cafÈ since it opened. A few weeks after the opening, the cafÈ had to set one day aside only for minors under the age of eight to play with the cats, to ensure that more volunteer supervisors are present. Children may mishandle cats inadvertently while playing, and some older customers do not have enough experience and may refuse to listen to the supervisor, on the grounds that they also own cats and are not in need of anyone’s advice. The cats can also get disturbed as strangers play with them every day – cats need a long time to adapt to humans.
“We tried to make the atmosphere of the cafe more comfortable for the cats, so we have limited the number of people that can enter at a time, so that the place is not crowded and the cats do not panic. In general, all our cats are friendly and love to get petted by visitors.” Refaei said.
On the other side of Kuwait, in Qurain industrial area, another young Kuwaiti man is preparing to launch his own cat cafe, as well as a pet store to sell animals, pet supplies and grooming services. Ahmad Al-Azmi opposes the presence of cats inside a coffee shop, and their constant intermingling with strangers.
Azmi will not follow in Refaei’s footsteps of mixing cats and humans with food and beverages. “Not all cats love to be stroked. And not all cats want to socialize with other cats. There are felines who want to be left alone. Even if they allow you to stroke them, they will certainly begin to shrug off your hand or claw you after a few minutes,” Ahmad told Kuwait Times. Azmi also runs a cat hotel. He seeks to educate his followers on social media about raising pets and avoiding infections in order to correct misconceptions about cats. He and a team of volunteers also administrate WhatsApp groups to reply to any inquiry and provide helpful answers and affordable solutions. He believes it is better to have a cat cafe devoid of cats!
“It’s a feline-themed cafe. From the interior design to the menu, everything will be linked to cats of all types and breeds. Most significantly, we must not forget that cats were not created for entertainment – they are souls like humans; they need someone who loves them and cares for them and considers them to be members of the family,” Azmi added.
Refaei, in his defense, said the cats in his cafe were homeless despite all the efforts made at the shelter, and at present they live a better life. “I gave them a new chance to live, instead of being put down after a while if they couldn’t find someone to adopt them. No food and drinks are allowed where our cats are. There is a designated area outside the coffee shop, because as I noted earlier, this is prohibited by the ministry of health and the municipality,” he concluded.
Both Ahmad and Fahd have the same goal – raising awareness about cats and encouraging people to welcome them at home. Each of them is unique in his own way. Azmi will be hosting talks and meet-ups at his cafe, while Refaei will be attempting to break the barrier of fear of cats through direct engagement. He believes his cafe will encourage visitors to decide whether it’s time to introduce a new furry four-legged member of the family!
Story and photos by Athoob Al-Shuaibi