The story of Calgary’s Cat House has been a long time in the making. When I started working on this piece I set out to tell the story of Canada’s largest cat store and the entrepreneur who made it happen, Joanne Wegiel. A true Catster Hero, Wegiel turned her passion for cats into her life’s work. She’s run a successful cat-focused business for almost a quarter century, and she helped countless cats through her personal rescue efforts and by supporting rescue organizations. Sadly, not long after I interviewed Weigel for this piece, fire ripped through the strip mall where her store was located. The business Wegiel and her husband Henry built over many years burned to the ground, but thanks to a whole cast of Catster Heroes, the store — and the two adorable shop cats who lived inside — still have a future.
The blaze that took down the Stadium Shopping Centre started on Nov. 12 around 7 a.m.. The timing was awful — Weigel and her store manager, Candace Schneider, were both out of town at the time, and the store wasn’t scheduled to open until 10 a.m. With the store closed and locked, the two rescue cats who lived inside — Margarita and Gabriel — were in grave danger. From across the country in Newfoundland, Schneider communicated with staff members back in Calgary. According to Schneider, assistant manager Peter Chao rushed down to the store to give the keys to firefighters. Cat House staff members were worried the firefighters wouldn’t be able to find the frightened cats through all the smoke, but soon Margarita and Gabriel were both out of the building.
“Peter was on the news holding Margarita while Gabriel was in the back of a police car,” says Schneider, who adds that Gabriel was so scared he might have peed in the cruiser.
The cats were definitely frightened and they both smelled like smoke, but neither was injured in the fire that took the storefront they’d called home for eight years. They’d lived there among the cat trees and toys since Weigel pulled them from the Cochrane and Area Humane Society. She shared their rescue story with me not long before the blaze.
“They come from the same shelter, but at different times, and right from the first week they were together they’ve loved each other,” she said.
According to Weigel, Gabriel is a strong, stoic and loving cat who is great with children, and his female counterpart is a long-haired Maine Coon beauty with plenty of personality.
“Margarita is a sassy little seven-pound cat who rules the roost,” she says. “She’ll come right into Gabriel’s bed and muscle him out of his own bed or else cuddle with him, it’s just adorable.”
Their charming personalities made Margarita and Gabe a hit with Cat House customers, many of whom were extremely worried about the kitties on the day of the fire. News of the cats’ rescue was met with exclamations of relief on social media, and the kitties soon settled into foster care with Angela, a staff member whose own kitty had recently passed away. Her place was the perfect short-term solution for the shop cats, who may have been overwhelmed at either Weigel’s or Schneider’s as both women have their own clowder of cats at home.
According to Schneider, Gabe especially is enjoying some of the comforts of a home environment at Angela’s place.
“He’s never had a couch before,” she says, explaining that both cats will eventually retire from retail life but will probably get a chance to check out The Cat House’s next storefront thanks to the generosity of Calgary’s cat community.
In the hours and days after the fire, customers reached out to Schneider, asking what they could do to help get the business back up and running. At the time, Weigel, who is in her 60s, was considering not reopening a brick-and-mortar store in favor of moving the business online. That changed after Schneider started a GoFundMe campaign to help get The Cat House back in business. Within two days the campaign had raised $19,000 of its $25,000 goal. Over the next month, donations kept rolling in, and by December 10 the campaign met its goal of $25,000.
“It’s amazing,” Schneider said of the crowdfunding support.
Thanks in part to the generous support of Calgary’s cat community, Schneider is moving forward with an arrangement she and Weigel were working on long before the fire. Schneider was already planning to buy into the business as a partner — just not quite so soon.
“We were going to wait until we had to move,” she explains.
The aging strip mall that housed The Cat House was scheduled to be redeveloped next year, so ideally, Schneider would have bought into the business at that time. By becoming a partner, Schneider can ensure The Cat House lives on after Weigel’s retirement. The pair are now close to securing a new space for the store — but Schneider can’t announce the location quite yet.
“I can say,” she says, “we’re in negotiations.”
No matter where the new store is located, it will be an important part of the city’s cat community. Schneider says that although the store isn’t in a position to make financial contributions to cat charities, it will continue its tradition of supporting and fundraising for organizations including the Cochrane and Area Humane Society, the MEOW Foundation, and others. Gabriel and Margarita might not be the only cats in the new store, as Schneider envisions a foster room for adoptable cats.
Schneider says she’s making The Cat House a long-term career, although she realizes it will never make her rich. It seems she is just as passionate as Wegiel, who explained the key to the The Cat House’s success to me back before the fire.
“We’re in it for the love of cats, and we truly are cat crazy,” she said.
About the author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kitten, GhostBuster the Lab and her newest dog, Marshmallow, make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google +.