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Whitney Sickels and Heath Hanson will open Naughty Cat Cafe in St. Elmo this month. Their customers will be able to mingle with adoptable cats from local shelters while enjoying an assortment of drinks and snacks.

Goats in yoga class. Ax-throwing for stress relief. Voluntarily trapping yourself in a room for the thrill of figuring out how to free yourself. Just when you think Chattanooga couldn't possibly get cooler (or weirder), here comes Naughty Cat Cafe, the brainchild of Heath Hanson and Whitney Sickels.

Fresh off The Big Island, they are bringing a whole new way to relax, refuela and — maybe — get a little work done, all while a clowder of loving, adoptable cats vie for your attention. Naughty Cat Cafe is set to open in mid-March, near the entrance to the Incline Railway in St. Elmo. Customers can enjoy coffee, tea, beer, cider and an assortment of other drinks. There will be baked goods brought in from a local bakery, and other assorted snacks.

"The response," says Sickels, "has been overwhelming."

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Whitney Sickels plays with a cat at McKamey Animal Center. There will be about 25 adoptable cats like this one at her new cafe.
Novelty-themed cafes are not new. There's an owl cafe in London, a chain of rabbit cafes across Japan, and in Tokyo's Moomin House Cafe, large, hippo-like stuffed animals are seated with lone customers to save them from the " awkward perils of solo dining." But cat cafes have only been around since 1998, when Cat Flower Garden opened in Taipei. It was wildly popular, and cat cafes soon popped up all over Japan. It was 2014 before New York City hopped on the cat-wagon, but now, Catwisdom101.com puts the number of cat cafes in the United States in excess of 60.

Hanson, 38, and Sickels, 35, were born in Oahu, Hawaii, and Ft. Myers, Florida, respectively, but their love of animals and concern for environmental welfare has taken them all across the globe. The pair, who have been partners for 13 years, met at sea in the Florida Keys when Sickels' family chartered a catamaran that Hanson captained. They lived in Amsterdam for five years before moving — with their two cats — to Hawaii, where they built an off-grid, self-sustaining pineapple farm and cat sanctuary. Sickels, with a degree in communications from Florida Gulf Coast University, worked at the Hawaii Island Humane Society, first as a volunteer, then as a kennel technician, animal control dispatcher, adoption counselor, social media coordinator and fund development director. After obtaining his master's degree in foreign policy from George Washington University, Hanson spent 12 years as a ship's captain for Greenpeace, coordinating acts of non-violent civil disobedience around the globe. All along the way, the couple fostered upwards of 80 kittens, says Sickels.

IF YOU GO

What: Naughty Cat Cafe

Where: 3742 Tennessee Ave., Suite 100

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Monday.

>>Reservations are highly recommended. To keep the cats happy and healthy, only 15-20 people will be allowed into the cat lounge at a time. Walk-ins are allowed, but will be turned away if the cafe is at cat-pacity.

More info:

>423-413-4630

>Naughtycatcafe.com

>Facebook at Naughty Cat Cafe

>Instagram @naughtycatcafe

>>Watch for special events such as Yoga with Cats, Game/Date Night, and Caturday Morning Cartoons.

When they were ready to move again, the pair "spun the globe." It landed them, happily, on top of a mountain in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. They moved with their two original cats — and the eight they added while in Hawaii (they've since added another, bringing the total to 11) — and began fostering for McKamey Animal Center "before we even unpacked our bags," Sickels says. To be a real help to the shelters, however, they quickly realized they'd need more space.

"We visited many cat cafes during our travels and were always big fans of the cat cafe concept," says Sickels, citing the benefits to both cats and the communities the cafes serve. The cafes offer safe, comfortable, healthy spaces where people can interact with adoptable cats. Cats that struggle in a traditional shelter environment are more likely to socialize and thrive and their personalities to shine in the less stressful cafe environment. And a relaxed, happy cat has a better chance of being adopted. Not to mention, who doesn't bond better over coffee or a beer?

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Heath Hanson and Whitney Sickels have fostered more than 80 kittens.

There will be about 25 adoptable cats living at the cafe at any given time. They will come from local shelters and rescues such as McKamey Animal Center, the Humane Educational Society, and Pet Placement Center. They will be spayed or neutered, micro-chipped and up-to-date on vaccines, and Sickels and Hanson will follow all adoption protocols and policies of the originating shelter. Likewise, all adoption fees will to go to the shelter where the cat is from.

So why the name 'Naughty Cat'?

"It's when we're acting naughty that we embrace our true instincts, our independence, our curiosity and our courage and sense of adventure," Sickels says. With the arrival of its first cat cafe, it seems Chattanooga just got a little bit naughtier.

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