The bodega cat is the urban world’s most magnificent beast. Sometimes colloquially called the deli cat, these animals eke out a working existence in the often-raggedy corner stores that pepper grand metropolitan areas. You’ll find them standing guard by the store’s luridly-lit entrance, or asleep atop of an unpacked box of Cheetos. But does the bodega cat really enjoy pandering to those in need of 24-hour convenience? Or is there a problematic underbelly to this specialized feline? I embarked on a mission to find out.
From my own experience, a sighting of a bodega cat always peps up a mundane visit to the store. (It can also turn a one-minute trip for a bottle of seltzer into a 15-minute cat-photo-chasing exercise.) In Brooklyn, I’ve even seen the rare ameliorated offshoot that is a full-on supermarket cat. The bodega cat phenomenon has also found itself subject to an online mockumentary that marvels at the fine work they do in holding the raggedy fabric of New York City together. And personally, I’ve come to know most of the bodega cats that live in my neighborhood.
At the moment, I’m particularly fond of the little ginger scamp who holds down duties in a half-and-half Ecuadorean hardware emporium and dollar store that is now also apparently selling some produce out front. Here he is guarding some very important plastic flowers.
In the past, I became very close to a bodega cat in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She was named Nola and was a sweet and petite grey thing who would skip around her expansive 24-hour stomping grounds with dainty aplomb. When she became pregnant, I even considered taking one of the kittens. His name became Beast. Here he is faithfully guarding the bags of nuts, possibly with food on his nose.
I’m an unabashed bodega cat enthusiast; I’ll name those I’ve met barely twice and have an iPhone full of random store cat pictures. But I’m not na├»ve enough to overlook the fact that the bodega cat’s primary function is to keep vermin away from those priceless boxes of Lays’ Flamin’ Hot chips. So, I sought some expert opinion on the potential plight of a bodega cat and asked Gail Buchwald, who is based in Manhattan and is the senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center, for her take on some of the issues that might come up for this sort of working cat.
She began with concerns about the cat’s access to proper food and water. “When a bodega cat is left on their own as mousers, they can become dehydrated, malnourished and anemic,” she says. “One of the most common reasons that bodega cats exist is to help control the vermin population. But there’s a myth out there that for the cat to control the mice and rats they need to be kept hungry to hunt, and that’s absolutely not true. They are going to hunt for recreational purposes.”
Expanding on the issue of viewing a bodega cat as a mouser, Gail says that cats can have naturally high or low prey drives. “Keeping a cat that has a low prey drive hungry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to keep them malnourished. Damage can come from that.” She also says that it’s “pretty tough” to predict whether a kitten will go on to have a high or a low prey drive and earmark them as a future bodega star. “Most folks who’ve had a kitten will tell you that pretty much every kitten wants to pound and play and chase just about anything. That’s their kittenhood coming through. It’s tough to know if they’ll be a good mouser from a young kitten’s behavior.”
Honing in on the specifics of a bodega cat’s environment, Gail adds that they are often given a territorial run that includes basement areas, because the thinking is that’s where the vermin prosper. But these areas can often expose the cat to an inventory of toxic agents, chemicals and pesticides.
The constant influx of customers (and delivery people) coming in and out of the store can be an issue in the welfare of a bodega cat. Gail says, “Bodega cats need to have a very high threshold for novelty, meaning new people and new objects. It’s a surrounding environment that will present them with a constantly changing influx of people, objects, and sounds. The cats that are usually good in that environments are what we call high valiant: they have a high tolerance for a lot of stimulation and are also cats that will tolerate handling. So if a child runs up to a bodega cat, it might not know it’s not friendly to people, so cats in this environment need to be social.”
Gail’s point about the bustling environment that takes place around a deli cat rings true in my experience. Those cats that I’ve met in a bodega seem happy to strut up and brush against my leg and be petted. They’re almost like greeters in a large chain store, but without the annoyingly hollow “How are you?” sentiment. Consider the bodega cat nothing less than an artisanal urban concierge.
The focus on a bodega cat’s temperament is also one that has caught the interest of the science world. Gail recounts that Dr. Emily Weiss, the vice-president of research and development at the ASPCA, has looked into a wide range of feline behavior. From her findings, Gail says that the ideal bodega cat is one that would be termed “highly gregarious” and also “very brave.” For the right feline personality, it seems that the bodega could be something of a giant, 24-hour play-box for a cat. (With good humor, Gail quips that her own cat, Dumont, would be a terrible bodega cat that would likely be frightened by all of the new customers.)
Like most cases of cat ownership then, it seems that the phenomenon of a bodega cat comes down to matching the right cat with the right owner and environment. Gail points out that it’s important that the store has someone that will take on the role of primary caregiver to the cat; not just in terms of ensuring there is fresh food and water, but also taking the cat to the vet when needed. This should be a given with every cat. So while some cats are content to chase sunbeams and snooze their way through the day while their owner is away, others can become bored at being cooped up in an apartment during the nine-to-five hours. For those plucky felines, the bodega could be an oasis.
At heart, a corner bodega serves a utilitarian purpose by prioritizing a constant supply of staples over a luxurious shopping experience. Perhaps we should start giving thanks to the environment they have conjured up for these special service feline agents to patrol. Bodega cats, I salute you all.
About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.