By Caroline Gerdes | LSU Student
While customers stroll through Honeymoon Bungalow, Baton Rouge's only vintage department store, they peruse items while cradling a soft kitten.
Owner Marsha Rish's store, at 3153 Government Street, offers furniture, lighting, décor and housewares from the 1920s through the 1970s. But that isn't the only thing that differentiates it from other businesses.
"Mid-century modern is hard to find in southern Louisiana, but we work very hard to find the very best," she said. "We are open seven days a week and offer services such as free gift wrap, gift certificates, delivery, lamp and furniture repairs, besides carrying a kitty while you shop."
So what's with the cats?
It began three years ago, said Rish, with one kitten which was found in the bungalow's storeroom. It had to be bottle-fed.
But a stork of some sort kept delivering. Five more kittens showed up in the same storeroom, Rish guesses a mother cat was bringing in her offspring through a window.
"We put the kittens in a cage near our sales counter and we encouraged our customers to carry them while they shopped. The kittens ended up so sweet and gentle that the ‘cat ladies' asked us to consider working with some of their ‘fosters.' By trial and error, we found that if we can get the kitten four to five weeks old, it will socialize and be adoptable by 12 weeks of age."
Rish named this socialization process Bungalow Kitty Boot Camp. Two years ago, Project Purr got wind of the boot camp and the two joined forces, she said.
"We work with Project Purr, which is the cat side of Yelp!, started for dogs by Raising Canes … [Project Purr's] mission is to rescue adoptable cats and kittens from animal control. Also they trap, spay/neuter and [rerelease] feral cats around the city."
Project Purr brings four- to five-week-old kittens rescued from animal control to the bungalow after being tested for feline AIDS and leukemia. They are spayed or neutered and implanted with micro chips at two pounds.
"Since we only socialize and not foster the kittens, they are taken off site from time to time to adoption sites by their fosters. If they are not adopted by 14 weeks, the kittens go back to their original foster. We have a 99 percent success rate of adoption over the three years we have been doing this."
Over the years, boot camp evolved. The cage at the front of the shop has since become a multi-level (and multi-color) "kitty barracks," as described by Sara Harrington, assistant manager.
As Harrington stroked a kitten named Buttons, who was swaddled in an animal print towel, she explained that barracks went with the boot camp theme. She pointed to the lower level, where the "latrine and mess hall" are located. Not only has the barracks grown but, according to Rish, so has the program. Honeymoon Bungalow is now a Project Purr adoption site.
"Project Purr has a permanent adoption site at PetSmart on Millerville and a kiosk at the Mall of Louisiana. It wanted a third site in the Mid-City area. Since we have the boot camp, they thought we would be a good fit."
Potential adoptive owners are screened carefully, Rish said.
"There is an application form and an adoption contract. The adoption fee is $90. Project Purr cats are to be inside cats only and cannot be declawed. A [Project Purr] representative is available for questions or counseling for new cat owners."
These counselors ensure cats are placed in safe homse. Rish said precautions also are taken to protect customers while handling feral animals.
The more a kitten is handled (and by as many hands as possible), noted Rish, the more successful the socialization process. And the earlier the better, she added.
"If you wait until they are two or three months old, it can be difficult and somewhat dangerous. They have sharp little claws and teeth and will not hesitate to use them if they feel threatened … As a business, you have to set guidelines, policies and procedures that make sense to you and protect your customers."
In addition to customer safety, Rish also promotes kitten protection, the key being spaying and neutering.
"Each fertile cat, male or female, will become 100 cats in seven years. If your average southern Louisiana stray cat has three to four litters of six or more kittens and they all reach sexual maturity at four months, that cat can become a huge problem very quickly. All cats need to be spayed [or] neutered."
Fixed cats, she notes, are calmer and healthier, noting there are several organizations that fix strays for free. She also points out that is a felony to dump animals, of any kind, just anywhere.
"If you can't or don't want to care for that litter of kittens that showed up on your doorstep, take them to animal control. If you dump them on someone else's doorstep, a vet's office or even the parking lot of animal control, you can be arrested, prosecuted, jailed and fined. They may be a bunch a noisy, nasty little things to you, but they have a life, and we are responsible to protect them from harm. Take them to animal control, get your yard cat fixed and end of problem.
"For God's sake, don't throw them in a river or on the freeway!"