If you’ve frequented enough New York City delis or bodegas, then you’ve most likely come across a resident cat or two, either roaming the shop’s aisles or tucked away and sleeping in a corner. The response to these furry shop companions is varied, ranging from affection and appreciation to criticism, disgust, and even penalization. For shop owners and many customers, bodega cats are welcomed for their weird, yet sweet personalities, but also for an invaluable service that they provide. Rats, mice, and other infestations are just a fact of the city — they’re in apartments, offices, classrooms, grocery stores, restaurants, subway stations, streets, and literally everywhere else — but the installation of a bodega cat has proven to be a successful repellent. The practice is not new: cats in shops have been a constant in the city’s deli and bodega culture, but they’re technically illegal to keep in food establishments due to public health concerns.
The backlash against bodega cats comes from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) and cat-haters alike. The DOH is extremely clear on its pest and animal policy in regard to food service establishments, which includes full-service restaurants, fast-food restaurants, and food carts. The regulations also apply to food retailers like bodegas, Green Carts, produce carts, produce stores, specialty groceries, and grocery stores. In Article 151 of the city’s Health Code, it’s stated that in terms of prevention and pest management, all “[p]roperties shall be free of pests. All premises capable of attracting or supporting rodents, insects and other pests shall be kept free from rodents, insects and other pests, and from any conditions conducive to pests. The person in control of such premises shall take such measures as may be necessary to prevent and control the harborage and free movement of rodents, insects or other pests.”
This is an appropriate and reasonable rule — one that can be appreciated by anyone who has encountered a cockroach or rat unexpectedly running around their kitchen floor — and is intended to prevent the spread of diseases caused by rodent contamination. But this is New York City we’re talking about. We all saw that rat dragging that piece of pizza down the subway stairs; we know what they’re capable of. They’re resilient, and sometimes a sticky trap or an electric trap just won’t do the trick.
A bodega cat serves not only to catch and kill existing rodents, but also to deter others from entering the establishment, spreading bacteria, and destroying the shop owner’s goods. However, the DOH prohibits the existence of any “live animal other than fish in tank or service animal” on the basis of it being a public health issue. For matters of pest infestation, the violation of any regulation usually results in a penalty fine of $200. Alternatively, adopting a cat to eliminate the rodents can incur a fine anywhere from $200 to $350; in one instance, a shopkeeper was threatened with a $2,000 fine for allowing a cat into his establishment. Ultimately, shopkeepers are faced with rodents (a New York City inevitability) and a fine or a rodent-repelling cat and a fine.
A main point of contention seems to be the threat to public health that a cat could pose within a bodega, particularly in ones that offer food services. It’s a fair enough argument — cats could be carriers of bacteria and potential disease — but if they are properly cared for, meaning that they are provided with vaccinations, spay/neuter services, and clean home environments, then they are far less hazardous than a family of mice or rats.
The DOH has commented on the issue and indicated its firm stance on keeping cats out of bodegas and delis, citing the regulation’s relationship to the FDA’s Model Food Code. Nonetheless, public opinion might have the power to reform the regulation, as seen in a 2016 Change.org petition to legalize cats in bodegas. The petition garnered nearly 6,000 supporters and, though it was unsuccessful at the time, demonstrated how these neighborhood cats are still common and beloved by both customers and shop-owners.
Though bodega cats may not be entirely legal, they’re still a welcome sight for many New Yorkers. If you’re not convinced, check out this Instagram account entirely dedicated to them, as well as Shop Cats of New York, a book of 36 local cats across the city, written by Tamar Arslanian and photographed by Andrew Marttila.