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Cat Town Café and Adoption Center in Oakland.

He's known as the Cat Man of West Oakland. Adam Myatt takes photos of feral cats in his neighbourhood and publishes an annual calendar of the local alley cats. Now he's taken his feline interest a step further – with a cat café where customers can play with, or even adopt, a homeless feline.

The cat café concept was pioneered in Taiwan about a decade ago and blew up big in Japan, where many apartment dwellers aren't allowed to have pets. Now it's taking North America by storm.

"I grew up with animals – a turtle, a hamster, a rat, dogs – but lately it's been all cats, all the time," says Myatt, who sports three cat tattoos. On a cat-related pilgrimage to Japan last year, he visited the resident felines, cat shrine and cat-shaped buildings on Feral Cat Island and stopped in at some of the country's 100-plus cat cafés. "The best was the one in Tokyo with a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs theme," he recalls.

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When Myatt returned home, he and friend Ann Dunn decided to start their own café, raising more than $40,000 (U.S.) to do so with the help of the cat-crazy Internet. The two first met when Dunn, who runs a cat foster network, helped place some feral kittens Myatt had come across.

Their not-for-profit joint venture, Oakland's Cat Town Café and Adoption Center, opened in October, the first in the United States. It came close on the heels of North America's first such café, Montreal's Café Chat L'Heureux, which opened its doors in late August.

"The cat café seems to be an idea whose time has suddenly come," Myatt says. "Just after ours opened, ones got going in Portland, Denver, San Diego, Seattle. There's one coming soon to San Francisco. They tend to have themes – and the Internet's many cat fans are talking about visiting as many as they can."

A few years ago, I visited a cat café in Tokyo where you paid by the hour to play with the mainly unhappy cats, who had nowhere to go to avoid having toys thrust in their faces. When I recount the experience, Dunn frowns. "To avoid bombarding our cats, we limit the numbers of people who come into their space. The cats have an area where they can go when they want a break."

For a donation of $10, visitors to Cat Town Café can play with the dozen or so cats there and, if the spirit moves them, adopt one – paying a $50 administrative fee for one animal, $75 for two (reservations are recommended and can be made online at cattowncafe.com).

Cat Town is divided into two areas: the café (offering lattes and vegan cupcakes with cat faces in the icing); and the cat-play area (with models of Oakland landmarks the cats can climb and explore).

"You can bring your coffee into the cat area through these two consecutive doors – what we call the 'hair lock.' But the cats don't get into the food preparation area. And they aren't near boiling liquids," Myatt adds.

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During my visit, two customers compete hard for the attentions of a petite tabby named Jones. He's not interested. And Juniper, a big-boned dilute tortoiseshell, lounges on a perch in a replica of the Oakland Tribune building. When a seven-year-old boy tentatively begins to scratch Juniper's belly, she purrs and stretches full out on the clock-tower deck at the top of the skyscraper, her feet protruding from the side of the building. "We wanted it to be sort of Catzilla in here," Myatt notes.

Myatt and Dunn find their cats in local shelters, preferring the least adoptable, such as shy, aggressive, old and black cats (unpopular because superstitions die hard). So far, more than 140 cats have come through the café en route to new homes.

"The atmosphere in many shelters discourages people," Dunn notes. "They end up worrying about all the ones they can't adopt. And the cats are seldom at their best – living in cages, dogs barking near them. This place makes it easy; you can get a feel for the cats, how they might behave in your home."

When Myatt and Dunn are asked about why they think cat film festivals are all the rage, and why the Net is filled with videos of their antics, Myatt notes: "The suburbs traditionally were centred on church, the cities on night life. The Internet is centred on the cat."

Dunn offers another view: "Dogs are public creatures. They're socializing in the dog parks. And their owners are often that way, too – out there, sociable. Cats are homebodies, not always, but often. They don't have to leave the comfort of their homes to get online – and their owners tend to be the same, more private, less outgoing, more … subtle."

Since my visit to the café, the easygoing Juniper has gone into a local home on trial ("Her person loves her," Dunn says, "but the older cat that already lives in the house isn't so sure"). And the little tabby Jones? He found a taker and moved to Santa Cruz, taking his shy brother Johnny with him – Johnny was hiding under a blanket when I came by.

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Meanwhile, the trend-setting Japanese are moving on with the recent opening of the world's first owl cafés.

CAT CRAZY

With more than 100 cat cafés, Japan now has some that only feature rare purebreds or black cats. Here's what you'll find in some other cafés:

Montreal's Café Chat L'Heureux, North America's first cat café, has resident cats, rather than ones available for adoption (cafechatlheureux.com). But the cats at Australia's Cat Café Melbourne are available to a good home (catcafemelbourne.com).

Purringtons Cat Lounge, in Portland, Ore., sports a mural of cats in spaceships(purringtonscatlounge.com). The Seattle Meowtropolitan is done up like a Game of Thrones set (seattlemeowtropolitan.com). Denver's Cat Company offers lessons in painting the feline form (denvercatco.com). New York's high-fashion Meow Parlour is decorated in basic black and white (meowparlour.com).

Brussels's Le Chat Touille features an electric-green wall with cat perches attached to it (lechattouille.eu). Paris's Le café des Chats occupies a picturesque stone-lined room in the Marais and requires that patrons recognize one self-evident truth: "Cats are free; they must not be forced to do anything they do not want to do" (lecafedeschats.fr).

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