Where to play
Idaho Humane Society: idahohumanesociety.org
Oregon Humane Society: oregonhumane.org/ playroom
Apriori Control: apriori control.com
PORTLAND, Ore. — More than 90,000 cat lovers from 112 countries have played with the kittens at the Oregon Humane Society since September — wiggling and yanking on kitty toys at the shelter's playroom.
You'd think such a large number of people would be tripping over each other at the shelter. But these visits are by remote, thanks to real-time technology that lets fans of felines use their computers to manipulate the toys, which dangle from robotic arms.
It's a game of cat and computer mouse.
The kitties whack and tug at the toys and occasionally tumble with each other while their human playmates watch via cat-cam. Cats being cats, sometimes they ignore the toys.
The technology, called iPetCompanion, was invented by a small Idaho company, Apriori Control, and was first tested by the Idaho Humane Society in Boise last June.
"After launching our first site live in Idaho, we received an enormous response from Humane Societies around the country," said Scott Harris, head of Apriori.
He chose the Oregon Humane Society for the next launch.
"All I had to do was provide space and kittens," said Barbara Baugnon, communications director at the Portland shelter.
One purpose of the program is to increase cat adoptions by letting would-be adopters play with the cats without having to travel to the shelters. That's working. Adoptions are up 16 percent at the Oregon Humane Society and have increased at the Boise shelter as well.
But there's more going on here. People overseas who have played with the Idaho and Oregon kittens are probably not about to book a flight to the Pacific Northwest to adopt a cat.
Interacting with cats can have a soothing effect on humans, even if it is done remotely. Not everyone is a cat lover. But for people who are, using the robotic arm to play with kittens can be irresistible.
Some of the human playmates are people who can't own cats, whether because of building rules, allergies or other reasons. Disabled people with limited mobility also play with the kitties.
The average interactive time per viewer at the Idaho shelter is nearly 14 minutes; at the Oregon shelter it's just shy of 15 minutes, said Harris. The Idaho site has had more than 86,000 unique visitors from 108 countries.
If this is fun for humans, what's in it for the cats?
Having humans available to play 24/7 can be good for their mental and physical health.
"The basic idea of an online kitty playroom is great for both people who are, for one reason or another, unable to play with their own cat, and for the kittens, to help with socialization, reduce boredom in the shelter and promote later adoption," said Dr. Dennis C. Turner, an author and researcher in animal behavior at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.