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Leila Qari is building cat connections in a dog city

Leila Qari, owner of Denver Cat Company, holds an orange and white cat. Behind her is the cafe sign and a string of lights.

//Leila Qari, owner of Denver Cat Company, holds one of the organization’s cats at the coffee house and cat adoption business. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

According to a new survey from Rover and Zillow, Denver tops the list of dog-friendly cities. But Lelia Qari, the founder and owner of Denver Cat Company, is taking another approach: making room for feline friendship in the Mile High City.

“When I started this venture into cat cafes, I had a lot of naysayers telling me it wouldn’t work because Denver is a dog place,” Qari said. “There have been many hurdles. Everything at DCC stops with me, I’m the end of the line and I’m still trying to figure out what work-life balance is. Everything goes wrong before it goes right, but if you have conviction you can pull yourself through the obstacles and I somehow had the conviction to pull this business through.” 

While the cat cafe became her life’s purpose, Qari wasn’t always on this path. After immigrating to the United States from Pakistan, she attended the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law where she graduated at the top of her class. She was a practicing lawyer for a few years before she made the transition to entrepreneurship.

“It was my own battle with stress and mental health that made me realize I needed a change,”’ Qari said. “After all those years of education and hard work I had made it, but it wasn’t the fulfilling career I was expecting. I was burned out.”

Qari took stock of the shape of her life. She was strapped to a desk, feeling locked in an office day after day. Distressed by deadlines and buried under briefs, she didn’t feel like she was making a visible impact. 

“As a lawyer, I’d write a brief and the case would settle,” Qari said. “It was a lot different from what I do now where I can see someone going home with a cat that is going to change their life for the next 20 years. I can see the impact I’m making.”

Looking for an outlet that would allow her to connect with people in a meaningful way, Qari came across the concept of cat cafes. While she considered other ventures, something about these cafes kept intriguing her. Like the cat-and-coffee attractions that first gained popularity in Taiwan and Japan, the DCC offers visitors a chance to play with adoptable kitties, enjoy a drink and soak up some furry snuggles.

Quitting her job and pulling together a business plan, Qari fashioned her dream into a reality in only six months. When the shop originally opened on Tennyson Street in December 2014, it made Denver the third U.S. city to open a cat cafe. 

At the start, DCC worked with a variety of rescues to find the felines that would hang out in the cafe and interact with cat lovers looking to share company with some furry friends. Due to staff capacity, this was the appropriate business model to start. 

But after a few years, she realized playing the middle person between her customers and rescues didn’t feel authentic to her business anymore. She recognized the necessary next step for DCC was to become its own independent rescue. Therefore, in 2018 she added a nonprofit rescue to her business model. 

“While we started rescuing in 2018, the pandemic pushed it into high gear,” Qari said. “Not having cats is the end of my business, so I took it upon myself to start working with shelters across the country to source cats and meet our growing demand.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine led to a 250% increase in relative search volumes for pet adoptions compared to 2019. Nonetheless, the RSV for dog adoption has decreased since July 2020 and returned to the five-year average by December 2020. In contrast, the interest in cat adoption remained sustainably high, possibly reflecting the feline acclimation to indoor living. 

Just this November, Colorado rescue Moms and Mutts Colorado shared that they’ve had 163 returns. Most of them were dogs adopted in 2020. Qari is pleased that this hasn’t been the case for DCC. 

“In the cat community we haven’t seen the decline in adoptions nor the returns in comparison to the dog community,” she said. “A mental health crisis was a symptom of the pandemic, and we know cats are a great source of emotional support.” 

Since COVID-19 entered the U.S. in January 2020 with cases increasing rapidly in the months following, mental health maintenance has become critical for all Americans. Colorado is no exception; the average number of calls per month to the Colorado Crisis Services hotline has increased by about 32% since 2020. 

The 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey highlighted historic shifts in health, access to care and social and economic conditions. This bi-annual survey examined more than 10,000 Colorado households between February and June of this year. It found that mental health really was a second health crisis after COVID-19, with nearly one in four Coloradans ages five and older saying they had eight or more days of poor mental health this year. 

As a self-proclaimed extrovert, Qari felt the impact of going without social connection. As regulations forced DCC to shut its doors until businesses were allowed to reopen, she was faced with tough decisions, not knowing if her business would make it through the shutdown. However, with the financial support of the people of Denver, funds were raised to help DCC hang in there through GoFundMe. 

With each subsequent hurdle, Qari knew that reopening the doors to her cafe was imperative to the community DCC created. 

“So many parents thanked me once we were open again because we were providing a place of socialization for their kids who weren’t in school or interacting with their friends,” Qari said. “Our foster families were grateful that they could have a project kitty in their home during this time, giving them a sense of purpose. This pandemic has been a reminder that creating connections is at the center of our work.” 

 Having just celebrated seven years in business, Qari looked back at how far she has come. While she acknowledged that it is difficult at times to run a business, DCC has survived and Qari is ready to continue creating new connections in the community.

“This work isn’t easy or glamorous, but when I see the final outcome of a family being created, it makes it worth it,” Qari said. “We’re making an impact one cat at a time.”

 

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