WASHINGTON – To mark the first anniversary of her favorite cat’s death, Amber Smigiel took a few days off from her job at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to grieve — and may have ended up with a new feline.
Smigiel fell in love with Henry, a ginger-colored kitten she met at Crumbs & Whiskers’ pop-up kitten lounge in Georgetown. Two hours after she arrived, she had applied to adopt him and was asking the staff to extend her time-limited visit just one more time. Each half-hour cost her $10, half the regular price because she was there for Thursday’s soft opening.
“They’re probably going to run my credit card and it’ll be like $100, but I don’t care,” Smigiel said, laughing as kittens roamed around her. “It’s for a good cause.”
That cause is saving kittens from high-risk shelters whose resources are strained each spring during cats’ annual breeding season. The pop-up lounge, which runs through June, offers guests the chance to snuggle with kittens and apply to take one home.
The project is the brainchild of 28-year-old entrepreneur Kanchan Singh, who owns the Crumbs & Whiskers cat cafes in the District of Columbia and Los Angeles, where people can buy 70-minute time slots to hang out with grown cats. When she realized her customers wanted to play with kittens, and not just adult cats, she set out to make that happen.
“We’re actually a giant foster home,” Singh said. “That’s how we see ourselves.”
About 25 kittens at a time meander around the lounge as guests play with them on fluffy, human-size cat beds and watch them climb on shelves that line the space. A neon sign hanging on a painted brick wall reads, “You’ve got to be kitten me!”
Singh hopes to spur adoptions for 500 mixed-breed kittens that otherwise would be at risk of euthanasia due to a lack of shelter space.
The spring through early fall is known as “kitten season” or “kitten mountain” because the birthrate of cats rises dramatically at this time of year, said Stephanie Janeczko of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The offspring of cats who have not been spayed or neutered frequently end up in shelters and require intensive care from mostly volunteer staffs.
Kittens less than eight weeks old need bottle feeding every few hours, medical care to protect against infectious diseases and socialization with other cats and humans, Janeczko said. As a result, she said a portion of the roughly 860,000 cats that are euthanized each year are kittens, though she couldn’t say how many.
Crumbs & Whiskers partners with Homeward Trails, a local animal rescue organization that connects the lounge with kittens from shelters in rural Wise County, Va., and Fayette County, W.V. Sue Bell, the rescue group’s founder, said it also is taking in kittens the Wise County Humane Society has rescued from outdoors. Those kittens often die of exposure, illness or being hit by vehicles.
Wise and Fayette counties are areas that have economic challenges and are home to thousands of unspayed and unneutered cats, Bell said.
“Us taking in cats and kittens from that particular area, our hope is that it’s going to save a lot of lives, but it’s also going to give the people in the county who really care about the cats a bit of hope,” Bell said.
Because kittens have weak immune systems, they are generally kept in a separate space from grown cats, Singh said, so the pop-up creates a safe place for them. The underground lounge, which does not have an elevator, sits at the former site of the men’s underwear store Trunk and Drawer.
Veterinarians visit the lounge daily to perform health checks, and Homeward Trails also stops by periodically to care for the kittens. Staff members feed the felines several times each day.
As a kitten rested in Matthew Booth’s lap at the revamped lounge, he said the space fills a void created by not owning his own cat. He said he’s a fan of blueish-gray cats and hopes one day to name a cat “Major Tom” after a character from a David Bowie song.
Booth, 25, said his work as a saxophonist takes him to Asia and up and down the East Coast, making it hard for him to care for a pet. On a recent Thursday, however, he almost changed his mind.
“I always say I shouldn’t have a cat,” said Booth, of Gaithersburg, Md. “But you come here and you start playing with the kittens, and you’re like, ‘Jeez.’ You start thinking about it.”
The pop-up has proved popular since tickets became available online on Valentine’s Day. That day alone, the lounge raked in $25,000 in sales from play sessions they call “encounters” (15 minutes for $15), “experiences” (30 minutes for $20) and “extravaganzas” (70 minutes for $35), Singh said. Most visitors so far have been women in their 20s and 30s, a lot of whom share photos of their visits on Instagram.
The space is decorated with white and pink pillows on the oversize cat beds, climbing shelves for the kittens on the wall and decorative fake foliage hanging from the ceiling. On small tables throughout the room, guest books invite customers to leave a message and chalkboards announce the number of cats saved from death. A mix of bouncy and slower-paced music pulses from an Amazon Echo.
The kittens, who range from 3 to 8 months old, wear name tags and bows denoting their sex — gray for males and pink for females. A “cats only” room in the back of the lounge gives them a space for when they need alone time.
Each visit includes a Polaroid picture with the felines, and the lounge sells cat-themed merchandise ranging from sweatshirts for $54 to coffee mugs for $19.95.
Time slots of at least 30 minutes include the option to buy coffee and other nonalcoholic drinks, cookies or ready-to-eat cookie dough from the Dough Jar’s Georgetown location.
A gray kitten named Foxie meandered up to Elhi Brown of Upper Marlboro, Md., as her kids tried to choose a kitten to adopt. “He’s so dapper with his bow tie!” Brown said as Foxie nuzzled her finger.
The family had never had a cat before, Brown said, and she wanted to see how her kids would react to one. Each kitten the lounge puts up for adoption must go to a home with another playful cat or be adopted with a sibling so they can get used to being around other cats. Brown said she was happy to take home two kittens.
“We’ll definitely adopt — 100 percent. It’s just a matter of which ones,” Brown said as she looked around the room. “I’d like to live here.”
Brown’s 11-year-old daughter, Indira, said she liked the lounge’s “vibe.”
“It’s just kind of chill and happy — no stress and no worries,” she said.