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Play with cats online? Animal shelter 'virtual room' lets you

August 17, 2012|By Craig Nakano
  • The new virtual play room at the L.A. Mission Hills animal shelter has a camera with live video and a Web-based interface that allows users to shake toys and play with cats in real time.
The new virtual play room at the L.A. Mission Hills animal shelter has a camera…

If American worker productivity drops in the third quarter of 2012, I'm fairly certain the cause will be traced back to this: iPet Companion, a "virtual play room" that allows anyone, anywhere, to play with criminally cute, reprehensibly distracting orphan cats waiting to be adopted in city shelters.

The Los Angeles Best Friends Pet Adoption & Spay Neuter Center, a Mission Hills facility owned by the city of Los Angeles and operated by the nonprofit animal welfare organization Best Friends, launched its iPet Companion virtual play room Wednesday. Cat lovers, compulsive Web surfers and bored cubicle dwellers can go to the iPet Companion page, see a live video feed from the adoption center's "free-roam" cat room and click on "Let's Play." When it's your turn, screen buttons allow you to manipulate three cat 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. As much as a dog lover might want to scoff, he would have to admit: It's genius.

"It's a great way for cats at our pet adoption center to be showcased," said Sarah Schanz, marketing specialist for the Best Friends site in Mission Hills, adding that many shelters struggle with low cat adoption rates because feline personalities don't always shine in a shelter environment and prospective adopters may not develop a connection. Watching cats at play, however, helps people to form bonds and potentially arrive at a shelter already interested in adopting specific animals.

The cat and dog toy company Kong saw a pilot program at an Idaho Humane Society facility and agreed to sponsor the installation of iPet Companion in L.A. and four other U.S. sites -- in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Wisconsin.

The Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden, Colo., reports that in the first month after its iPet Companion room went live in May, the number of cat adoptions rose 26.5% compared with the same period in 2011 and 67% 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 are essentially augmenting the work of volunteers who visit shelters in person to play with and care for animals until they get permanent homes.

Might the idea work for dogs?

"Cats tend to be in a more controlled environment, and they tend to socialize well," Cohrs said, adding that an entirely new kind of space and automated toy would need to be developed for the system to work with the canine set. "There also happens to be a lot more cats in shelters that need help finding homes."

The iPet Companion will be left on at all times in Mission Hills. Asked if there's any concern that the shaking, swinging and dangling of toys 24/7 might be too much for some cats, Schanz said not likely.

"You know cats," she said. "They have their certain opinions. They're not always going to engage when someone initiates the program. The camera may be on, but they may decide to turn you off."

You can check out iPet Companion in Los Angeles or see the virtual play rooms in other parts of the country.

craig.nakano@latimes.com

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