Cat cafes have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, with animal rights groups criticizing some establishments for their allegedly shady practices and ethics. 

The criticisms leveled at these cafes are by now well-known: Some people argue the animals shouldn’t have to “work” for their keep, while others claim the cats are used in a way that contradicts their daily activity routines, especially with regards to sleep patterns and the like.  

However, cat cafe franchise Neco Republic is trying to improve this image by working directly with local cat shelters in Tokyo, Osaka and Gifu in its mission to help strays find a new home. For as long as this process takes, however, the animals receive care and protection in Neco Republic’s cafe spaces.

In November, Neco Republic opened a cat cafe in Osaka called Neco Yokujo (Cat Bathhouse) in collaboration with a real-estate management company. 

The site is a former public bathhouse that has been converted into a home for cats. It is considerably more spacious and comfortable than many conventional cat cafes. 

On Dec. 16, Neco Republic opened a dormitory-style inn called Neco Hatago that’s adjacent to Neco Yokujo. The two buildings are connected by a glass wall, and guests staying at the inn are free to observe the cats as they go about their daily routines. 

After 10 p.m., the lights of the inn are turned down and guests fall asleep as the cats — being nocturnal creatures — frolic about a few feet away from their pillows. 

“This way, even cat lovers with allergies get to socialize with the cats and the cats get to have more privacy and freedom,” says Naomi Nishikubo, manager of Neco Hatago.  

Nishikubo notes that cat enthusiasts have been dropping by the cafe to make cash donations as well as show their support from a distance. 

A night’s stay at Neko Hatago costs between ¥8,500 and ¥11,500, with the revenue helping to cover the cost of the cats’ food and medical bills. 

“We’re hoping to create a fun image of rescued cats,” Nishikubo says. “Some people may think of them as ‘those poor things,’ but cats are actually wonderful creatures to have around.” 

Apparently, a lot of people feel the same way — Neco Hatago is currently fully booked until mid-February.

Neco Republic’s project in Osaka reflects a new approach to cat cafes, whereby operators are trying to help former pets that have been abandoned.   

An establishment called Neko Katsu in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, has been doing just that for the past six years. Owner Tatsuya Umeda has been working with local public health centers and animal shelters to help stray cats secure adoption. To date, he has found new homes for around 1,000 cats.

Umeda ensures the animals are house-trained and used to humans before they meet potential owners, in order to minimize the stress of the adoption process on both sides. 

“I want people to take these cats home, not from a sense of pity but because cats are cute and make great companions,” Umeda tells President magazine.

Stray cats are a huge problem in Japan. Public health centers are often caught up in the debate around them, especially when welfare groups start highlighting euthanization figures and methods.

Thirty-five thousand cats are put down each year, more than any other pet, although that number has been slashed over the past five years following the efforts of animal protection organizations. 

A number of municipalities have adopted “zero killing” slogans and, while it is a commendable endeavor, the reality is that strays often have nowhere to go except the crowded cages of underfunded animal shelters, where living conditions can be appalling.

If rescuing stray cats becomes a profitable business, it’s possible more people will think twice before abandoning their animals — or procuring them in the first place. Japan has more than 9.6 million pet cats, but when you think about how many of those wind up in animal shelters nationwide, perhaps it’s better to spend a couple of nights at Neco Hatago before deciding to get your own. 

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