‘Virtual play room’ boosts cat adoptions

09/01/2012 7:50 AM

09/01/2012 7:50 AM

If American worker productivity drops in the third quarter of 2012, the hunt for a cause can start here: iPet Companion, a “virtual play room” that allows anyone, anywhere, to play with criminally cute, reprehensibly distracting orphan cats waiting to be adopted in Los Angeles city shelters.

The Los Angeles Best Friends Pet Adoption & Spay/Neuter Center, a Mission Hills, Calif., facility owned by the city of Los Angeles and operated by the nonprofit animal welfare organization Best Friends, launched its virtual play room recently. Now bored cubicle dwellers and weekend Web surfers can waste more hours online, seeing live video from the “free-roam” cat room and manipulating three toys in real time.

As mechanical arms dangle and swing toys — “teasers” or “charmers” in cat-person parlance — the human at the other end of the Internet connection can pan or zoom the camera for a closer look.

“It’s a great way for cats at our pet adoption center to be showcased,” said Sarah Schanz, marketing specialist for the center, adding that many shelters struggle with low cat-adoption rates because feline personalities don’t always shine in a shelter environment. Watching cats at play, however, helps people to form bonds before they have even seen animals in person.

The cat and dog toy company Kong saw a pilot program at an Idaho Humane Society facility and agreed to sponsor the iPet Companion installation in L.A. and four other U.S. sites. The Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden, Colo., reported that in the first month after its iPet Companion room went live in May, the number of cat adoptions rose 26.5 percent compared with the same period in 2011 and 67 percent compared with the month before the launch.

Robert Cohrs, marketing director for Kong cat products, said iPet Companion promises not only to raise awareness of shelter cats, boost shelter Web traffic and increase adoption rates, but also to act as a form of “virtual volunteerism.” People interacting with cats online, he said, are essentially augmenting the work of volunteers who play with and care for animals until they get permanent homes.

As soon as an article about the L.A. launch went live on latimes.com, the cat-obsessed began lining up to play with the Mission Hills cats.

At one point, the number of human playmates in queue topped 70, and the wait for a two-minute turn with the cats stretched to nearly three hours.

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