Diane Kelly needed a change. After working in the field of cardiac ultrasound for about three decades, the 50-year-old Hull resident knew this: She wanted to work with animals and she wanted to be her own boss.
When a dog groomer in North Carolina was selling her business and offered to teach her the ropes, Kelly trained for several weeks, but decided that she didn’t want to move.
While driving back home to Massachusetts she stopped at two “cat cafes,” and finally saw her future.
Cat cafes gained popularity in Asia in the late ’90s as a way for apartment dwellers to spend time with pets they couldn’t take home. Here, cat cafes have become a popular alternative to animal shelters, creating a more casual atmosphere for people to find and adopt cats.
The cafes Kelly visited — in New York and Washington, D.C. — were joyous gathering places where people bonded in the company of cats, Kelly said. She decided that she’d open her own, envisioning a cozy cafe where patrons, for a fee, could mingle with cats and possibly take them home, even though Kelly had no training, no expertise, and no idea what opening and running such a venture would take.
That was in 2015.
More than two years later, Kelly’s PURR Cafe finally opened in Brighton last month, but it’s far from what she envisioned.
On opening day, Kelly, a tall, slender woman with blonde hair, was charging $15 per hour for patrons to fraternize with her own five cats while a small group of protesters gathered outside. No cats were available for adoption, and there were no customers when a reporter visited.
A weary Kelly said she has drained her life savings, gotten into several ugly social media spats, had a falling out with a cat rescue agency, and faced an accusation of animal cruelty and a cease and desist order from state regulators.
Kelly can’t legally offer cats for adoption because she hasn’t found a rescue agency to partner with her. She said she’s struggling to survive after sinking more than $700,000 into the venture.
“I have no money. Everything’s into PURR. I’m fully invested,” Kelly said.
The problems began last summer when Kelly posted on Facebook that she was seeking foster homes for rescued cats and importing cats from Italy and Russia and someone complained to the state Department of Agricultural Resources
The state sent Kelly a cease and desist order, saying she was not allowed to arrange cat adoptions because she wasn’t a registered rescue or shelter operation. Kelly said she was joking and later removed the posts.
A short time later, Boston’s Forgotten Felines, a nonprofit rescue operation, backed out of plans to provide PURR Cat Café with rescue cats that would be available for adoption. Why they backed out is unclear — Kelly said the group wasn’t dependable, but declined to elaborate.
The organization didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Linda Faber, a cat rescuer from North Attleborough and friend of the nonprofit’s founder, said Boston’s Forgotten Felines cut ties with Kelly because she didn’t have appropriate accommodations for the cats.
But Faber suggested that it may have been Kelly’s attitude that finally drove the group away.
“Everybody was trying to help. She had all these seasoned cat ladies around her giving her information,” Faber said. “Most of the time she didn’t want to listen to anybody.”
After Boston’s Forgotten Felines pulled out, many cat lovers who had been supporting Kelly began to have second thoughts. The cafe’s general manager also quit, writing on Facebook that Kelly was putting profits before feline welfare — an allegation she denies.
Kelly fired back at her former general manager, making allegations about her sex life on Facebook and leading to a nasty public fight.
The general manager, who didn’t respond to messages seeking comment, filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office alleging that Kelly owes her more than $2,000 in unpaid wages, records show.
Kelly said she will repay her former employee when she gets the money. She apologized for disparaging her online.
“I reacted very, very poorly out of anger,” she said. “It was unprofessional of me. It was a mistake.”
Amid the bad feelings, an animal cruelty complaint was filed with the city, but it wasn’t sustained.
But Inspectional Services Department Commissioner William Christopher said he plans to watch the business carefully.
“This person appears to be running a good business,” said Christopher, who visited the cafe on its opening day. “The cats seem to be well cared for. As far as I know, right now, she seems to be doing the right thing; we will keep a watchful eye because I know a lot of people are interested.”
Meanwhile, a closed Facebook group with more than 760 members was created for people to discuss PURR Cat Café. T-shirts mocking Kelly are also being sold to benefit Boston’s Forgotten Felines.
Michelle Reiss, a Malden resident, said she went to an open house at the cafe and later visited on opening day.
“It felt sad really,” Reiss said. “It felt like these cats were being forced to interact with the people.”
But another patron, Susan Lodzsun, of Brighton, said she enjoyed her visit. Several musicians performed Christmas music.
“It’s a lovely place. I hope she does well,” she said. “The cats were very calm.”
Kelly said she is trying to convince a rescue agency on the North Shore to collaborate with her. She has acquired more cats and advertised events at the cafe.
Business has been good enough to keep her doors open for now.
She said: “All I do is work on PURR.”