Behind the Scenes at Cat Camp Safari


This is Part 5 of a series on Fluffy’s Staycation: What to do with cats who stay behind while you travel. In conjunction with this series, PetSmart is sponsoring a giveaway in which the lucky winner will win an overnight stay and TLC at a PetSmart PetsHotel. To enter, just leave a comment on this post, and on every post in this series. Each comment serves as your entry in the giveway; no more than one entry per post per household, please. Winners will be drawn at random on June 15th. Details here.

Today I’m interviewing Virginia Donohue, owner of Cat Camp Safari, a luxury kitty spa in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. Located in a beautifully remodeled turn-of-the-century building, Cat Safari offers the country’s only “outdoor” adventure for cats. Virginia says that in creating Cat Safari and its unique Safari Gardens, they wanted their campers to have the opportunity that most citified cats never get the chance to explore the great outdoors in a safe, secure environment.

The facility features enormous windows that afford maximum sunlight. Surrounding outside areas have been landscaped with plants and flowers designed to attract birds and butterflies for the cats’ enjoyment. Soothing music plays 24/7.

Karen: What sets Pet Camp Cat Safari apart from other cat boarding facilities?
At Pet Camp Cat Safari we have an outdoor garden (right) which is a lushly landscaped greenhouse where cats can climb trees and stroll on bamboo bridges. The garden has a bubbly fountain and cricket, frog and bird songs. Cats love it! Its the only place like it in the country!

Cat Safari is Pet Camps just-for-cats adventure. We encourage cats to come out of their private condos and climb cat trees, watch the fish in the aquarium, play with the disco lights, or lounge on the window sill and spy on the birds. Each cats condo has a separate ventilation system to pull the old air out and supply fresh, clean air. We have a second location, Pet Camps Main Campground, which is more convenient for families with both dogs and cats.

We post photos of the cats in the garden everyday on our website: Just look under Camper Cameos.

Karen: What was the genesis of the idea for the Safari Garden?
Like every good idea weve ever had, we were inspired by our own pets. We adopted Masai 13 years ago from the San Francisco SPCA. He is a fearless, affectionate adventurer. He spent the first 8 years of his life trying to go outside while we tried to tell him how dangerous the big city was. We looked at each other and said, weve got to find some safe way to let cats explore the great outdoors. The idea for the Safari Garden was born. Of course then we had to find a building and actually create it!

Karen: When cat owners are trying to select a boarding facility for their cats, what should they look for?
I always encourage people to visit any facility theyre thinking of using. You want to be sure the facility is professionally run and staffed by people who LOVE cats. Does it look and smell clean? Is the staff friendly? Does it have a variety of sources of stimulation for the cats, after all not every cat likes the same thing? Do they have a good active ventilation system to help prevent the spread of germs?

Were beginning to see more facilities that are prohibiting or severely limiting the times you can take a tour. If they wont show you where the cats stay, I wouldnt stay there. That said, you need to understand that the place is going to look pretty undone when the staff is cleaning cats can make quite a mess!

Karen: What advice would you give a cat owner who has never boarded a cat before?
Again, visit the place well before you plan to travel and make sure youre comfortable. Bring something from home for your cat to enjoy while youre gone, whether that be a favorite blanket, treat or toy. At drop off time relax, if youre tense your cat will know and thats not going to help anyone. Feel free to check in with the caretakers, but Id give it a few days. Generally it takes a cat about 48 hours to adjust to the new surroundings.

Karen: Cat Safari is certified by the city of San Francisco as a green business, probably the only pet boarding facility in the country with that designation. What makes your facility green?
We have a photovoltaic system on the roof to provide us a lot of our electricity. For our hot water, we installed a solar thermal system and tankless hot water system. On most days, the solar thermal system provides all the hot water we need. On those days that the solar thermal cant meet our needs on its own, it will pre-heat water before the water goes through a tankless water heater.

We also use the warmth the greenhouse generates to heat the building. The building itself is formaldehyde-free. And, of course, we compost and recycle like mad. My husband, Mark, is the guru of green here and is constantly on the prowl for new ideas.

Karen: Obviously, your feline guests are pampered both at home and at Cat Camp. What’s the most unusual special request you’ve fulfilled for one of your guests?
Well, once we had to hold a phone up to a cats ear because the owners psychic told her to call. I have to say though, that Ive been caring for dogs and cats for more than 12 years and gotten thousands of requests and at this point they all seem normal!

Karen: Do you ever run into a situation where the cat really shouldn’t be boarded (aside from the obvious, like having a URI)?
We do not accept diabetic cats because we dont feel we can adequately monitor them. The insulin doses that they are receiving at home work well with the combination of food and exercise theyre getting there. But if a cat leaves home and changes the amount of food he eats or exercise hes getting, the insulin doses he’s getting may no longer be appropriate.

We take care of many types of cats. Many are very people-oriented and are just too lonely when theyre left home with only a daily visit from a cat sitter. Here there are people around constantly.

But we also care for cats who are afraid of strangers and hide from the cat sitter. Cat sitters cant take care of a cat they cant find. We have cats who rip furniture or pee outside of the litter box when their people are gone. That kind of damage is very expensive to repair.

There are some cats who dont enjoy the experience, but theyre actually pretty rare. Even cats who are nervous the first time, come back a second time and are quite comfortable because they understand the routine. Generally it takes about 48 hours for a cat to adjust.

Karen: Both you and your husband, Mark, had traditional 9-5 jobs before you opened Pet Camp in 1997. Any regrets, or does Pet Camp represent a dream come true?
Sometimes I miss having a regular paycheck and vacation time, but I wouldnt trade this for anything. We meet fabulous people and their pets everyday. Plus when Im a little tired I can just find a furry friend and get a good snuggle!

Pet Camp’s Cat Camp Safari Links:

[PHOTOS: Mark Rogers Photography for Pet Camp Cat Safari]

Shopping Cart